Monday, October 17, 2005

Copyright law

I've had a number of reasons to think about copyright law in the past week or so. The first was a post by Robin Sloan on Snarkmarket, which generated some interesting comments, some of them even my own. The second was this opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune, found on Arts & Letters Daily, and the third was this article in the New York Times on the increasing difficulties in licensing copyrighted material for use in documentaries.

I think it's pretty clear that copyright law in this country has been stretched to the point that it makes little sense. There's no real purpose in extending copyright until 70 years after the death of the original copyright holder. While I believe that an artist (and, closer to my heart, a writer) has the right to make a living from their work, I do not believe that the same privilege extends to an artist's children and grandchildren. I may not believe that collage is the highest art form, but I think that the public is better served by a broad definition of fair use rather than a narrow one. I think that a compelling case can be made that even artists themselves are served best by specifically defined, limited term copyrights.

Worst of all, copyright law has been extended repeatedly over the last century not to benefit the ability of individual artists and creators to participate in the financial benefit of their work, but to serve the interests of large corporate holders of intellectual and creative property. (In fact, in recent years, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Disney, which has successfully kept Mickey Mouse out of Public Domain.)

As an aspiring writer, my initial reaction to the International Herald Tribune's proposal for limiting copyrights to a single one-year term was negative. Upon further reflection, however, it is hard to argue with. The vast majority of revenues generated by creative properties, be they book, film, or music, are generated within the first year, and even the first six months of public release. Furthermore, with an increasing market overload, and decreasing production times (think about DVD releases--it is becoming more unusual for the DVD release of a film to follow its theatrical release date by more than 90 days, and increasing market discussion focuses on simultaneous release) that profitable window is shrinking.

With more and more titles being released and going out-of-print within any given 12 to 24 month period, the rationale justifying indefinite possession by corporate copyright holders seems thin indeed.


Andrew said...

Though I agree that copyright terms are ridiculous at the moment, I'm hesitant to accept a hard and fast one year limit as a solution. There are, after all, those novels/albums/films that never become blockbusters, but rather take in what money they can from small but consistent sales.

And a greater challenge to the one year model is how to treat play scripts. Rather than sales, playwrights depend upon production. It may be years before a play catches on enough to be produced in multiple theatres, before it actually generates some profit for the author.

Oddly enough, it was in part the success of Gilbert and Sullivan that sped along international copyright laws in the late nineteenth century. There were bootleg versions of their shows running in the US, purporting to be the same productions that were hits in London. They would often contain hints of the same plot, but with lower caliber construction, bastardized songs, etc. G&S went so far as to open one show (Pirates, I think) in New York almost simultaneously to protect their work. But they had the support of past success to support such a venture.

Perhaps a solution could be to enforce one to two years of strict copyright protection, after which fair use rights expand. Artists would still be entitled to some royalties for purchase or performance of the original form, but the material would become available for use in derivative works.

I suppose this opens up whole new arguments over what constitutes a derviative vs. the original, but it may be a starting point.

Gavin said...

The one major point that never quite made it into my post was that I think that two years would be a reasonable compromise, although far closer to the Herald Tribune's proposal than current copyright law.

Theatrical production does throw a bit of a kink into the idea, but I think there are a couple of possibilities that would help it to fit more cleanly.

1.) I like the idea of copyright extending a set period after first production. Thus, a playwright would hold copyright until a script was staged, and then for a set period from the date of the first staging.

2.) You are, of course, correct that it often takes plays in particular several years to earn money for a playwright. Just as often, a play's author may never receive a return on his/her investment, especially since the costs of production are so high. The Herald Tribune's proposal actually deals with this by suggesting increased social support for certain creative fields outside of royalty streams.

There is a danger in such a suggestion--one envisions an elitist national academy who decides what will be produced and what will languish. At the same time, however, would it be more or less likely that individual community theatre groups would take up a broader, more diverse, and newer set of material to produce if they didn't have to worry about arranging licensing and royalties.

I can envision large-scale piracy, like Tolkien faced when his Lord of the Rings trilogy was not available in the United States, but I can imagine at the same time thousands of small theatre groups breathing life into classics like A Streetcar Named Desire, partially because they don't have to worry about Williams' estate or publisher coming after them, but partially because with so many productions, the characters will be far less personified by Brando and Leigh's film performances.