The EU made big news today by extending music recording copyright to 70 years. The BBC makes the argument that this will allow people who made a splash in their teens and early 20s to be able to support themselves well into their old age with money from their early hits. “Performers generally start their careers young and the current term of protection of 50 years often does not protect their performances for their entire lifetime. Therefore, some performers face an income gap at the end of their lifetimes.” I say, if you haven’t had another hit in 50 years, get a job. But, I’m not here to quarrel with that particular decision.
I want to talk about the destructive nature of current copyright law from the point of view of a struggling artist. (Today, I would not be considered a struggling artist, except in the sense that I struggle with my art, but at various times through my life the epithet would have fit.) Art is never created in a vacuum. The best of us “borrow” from our idols, those of us who are honest steal outright. That is the nature of art, from music, to painting, to theater, to literature. The true measure of artistic talent in the modern world is not originality, but the ability to mask your intellectual theft.
The original intention of copyright law was to allow writers and artists to profit from their work for a finite period of time, after which the work would fall into the Public Domain to be widely dispersed and re-interpreted by other artists. In the US, the original term was for 14 years. Eventually it was extended to 28 years, with the option to renew. Today, copyright is effectively forever, as in, nothing written today will ever be in the Public Domain. I am not anti-copyright, just anti-eternal-copyright. In the best case, the status quo ultimately leads to a dull, uninteresting art scene, in the worst case, it leads to the criminalization of art itself. The idea that these laws protect artists is a joke. These laws primarily protect large corporations with a few intellectual properties that still make them a whole lot of money.
I’m not an anarchist. I’m not a socialist. I’m not looking to bring down the Walt Disney Corporation. Let them have their money makers. But instead of making all copyrights indefinite, go back to the 28 year term and allow for unlimited renewals. As long as you or your heirs keep renewing the copyright to your work, then you or they have sole copyright. As long as those copyrights are making money, then you will have plenty of incentive to keep up with a simple filing every 28 years. If however, your work is a lost masterpiece after 28 or 56 years, let it go. Have it revert to the Public Domain. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone picks it up and reinterprets it and makes you famous a half century later? For every Mickey Mouse cartoon, or Steven King novel, or Jimi Hendrix recording, there are millions of lost works languishing in libraries waiting to be rediscovered and reinterpreted by new artists. These works are consigned to the purgatory of draconian copyright. They will never again have a life because it’s too much trouble to try to track down the copyright owner of an obscure work. And as an artist, it’s not worth taking the risk that no one will come forward, because if your new recording, or derivative work has any success, you can guarantee that the owner will come out of the woodwork and demand your profits.
Larry Lessig has written extensively about the importance of the Public Domain in his book Free Culture and other places. He is a much smarter man than I and he’s a lawyer, for those of you more likely to listen to one of those. I encourage you to read his various writings on copyright. In the meantime, if you are an artist or author, I urge you to distribute your work with a Creative Commons license. A CC license doesn’t replace copyright, but allows others to reuse and reinterpret your work as long as they meet criteria you define, like attributing the original work to you, and not using their derivative work for commercial purposes. Creative Commons is a good start. I suspect it may protect the culture of the 21st century from being completely lost to history. It’s hard to imagine now, because 20th century culture is virtually all we know, but unless we do something to return a lot of those lost works to the Public Domain, the 20th century may eventually be seen as a cultural black hole on par with the Dark Ages.