The Internet is a fine place to go if you want to look for outrage; and this morning’s Twitter was no exception, with many artists fuming about the Green Party’s apparent plan to reduce the current copyright term of the life of the creator plus 70 years down to a fixed 14 year term from the first date of publication.
Slightly more level heads pointed out that this was not in fact in the Green Party manifesto, which calls simply for a reduction in copyright length, but in its policy, which is currently mostly first drafts from the
last conference [EDIT]:
last few conferences and ever subject to change. This didn’t do much to quell the mutterings, and then the Telegraph weighed in
"Though our long-term vision includes a proposed copyright length of 14 years, we have no plans to implement this in the near future.”
The spokesman later added: "It would be 14 years after publishing, as recommended by Cambridge University researcher Rufus Pollock."
Now that’s a name I recognised from elsewhere, so a quick bit of Internet research found this:Forever minus a day? Some theory and empirics of optimal copyright
The first thing to note about this paper is that it dates from 2007, so it’s nothing new. The next thing is, it’s chock-full of the sort of maths that I ran headlong into in my A-level days, bounced off of, and never recovered. However, taking the base economics and the calculations on trust on the basis that while the paper may be contentious, nobody seems to have come out and said it was utterly wrong, here’s the Executive Version (or as I understand the youth of today write, TL;DR):
There are overall benefits for work remaining in copyright; but those benefits become lesser over time. Similarly, there are benefits for releasing work into the public domain, and those become greater over time. There is a point where the combination of those overall benefits is maximised, and that point is around 14 years from a work’s first publication.
You can find this on page 26 of the paper if you’re so inclined.
At least the Green Party’s 14 year idea wasn’t pulled out of a hat. However, while there may be sound economic reasons for reducing copyright terms, this one is extremely unlikely to be adopted, for two reasons: one very good, one very bad.
Let’s go with the good: Artists need to eat. And wear clothes, and have a roof over their heads. Unlike most people in a regular job, even in self-employment, their income is far more dependent on forces outside their control; such as marketers, publicists, and the whims of the general public. One of the consequences of copyright is that artists can, if they are lucky enough for their work to be popular enough for someone to sell it, and if they are clever enough to negotiate, will receive ongoing payments, aka royalties, for up to the duration of the copyright term. Even though they may not be much, royalties can form a vital part of an artist’s income, so to be told that the time you could possibly get something for creating a work is going to be cut by maybe as much as 90% is not going to go down well at all with them, or with anyone who thinks that starving in a garret is so 17th century and it’s really time we got over it. Oh yes: and whoever put this into the Green Party’s policy needs to be gently reminded that human beings are not perfect spheres of identical size and mass.
The bad reason is that very powerful, very rich entities, most of which are inhuman, whose drive not only to remain rich but get even richer has distorted the original concept of copyright from the temporary, limited, restriction of owners’ rights to do with what they have bought as they wish in order to promote science and the arts through the creation of new works, into the idea of a licence to print money in perpetuity or as near to it as makes no difference. And most of us have bought into that.
The drive by the “entertainment industry” – film, music, books; each with their own chequered history of dodgy and in some cases downright illegal practices – to extend copyright for their benefit at the expense of nearly everyone else, including most of the creators of the works they sell, is well documented. It stretches back beyond the “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension Act in 1988 (where the egregrious Jack Valenti proposed the “forever minus a day” extension mentioned above), to last year’s extension on created works from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 which seems to have served no purpose but to enrich Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Cliff Richard, and other such paupers (and also in my opinion to make them no better than the “pirates” who copy without permission for profit: they took from the public domain and gave nothing back in return).
There’s a human instinct to create, even though most of us, myself included, hardly have an original thought in their lives (Disclaimer: you’ll find over 90% of this article in other places, I’ve just cut, pasted, and re-arranged; index I copied from old Vladivostok telephone directory
…). Most of our creations are derivative, and I’m not just referring to using a common alphabet, colour palette, or the 88 audible notes you can find on a grand piano. You’ll have heard of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales: within a decade of their first coming out folk were writing fanfic where they were hob-nobbing with the Wife of Bath. Sir Thomas Malory, knight, took completely separate tales of Artos the Briton and Launcelot du Lac, and mashed them into Le Morte d’Arthur. As for Will Shakespeare (happy birthday, Will!) the number of files he went through getting rid of the serial numbers to make his plays would make a decent sized chest-plate. All of which makes “Pride and prejudice and zombies” or “Spider-sense and sensibility” look like a perfectly logical progression, and makes it even more frustrating that the myths and legends we grew up with: the mouse who dared to become a wizard, the farm-boy who took up his father’s sword to fight his father, despite their origins in stories of the past, are jealously guarded so we cannot tell our own tales about them without begging some faceless entity that’s only interested in how much they’d get out of it (or hope they’re not looking at Ao3 right now…). And if they have their way, we will never be able to do so, because they’re now talking to extending life plus 70 years to life plus 120…
The end result that the corporations desire - and while corporations are an artificial intelligence with thought patterns quite different from humans’, we share desire – that copyright should last “forever minus a day” must be fought against if we’re to preserve our creativity as a species. Spider Robinson put it much better than I could in his short story ‘Melancholy Elephants’ back in the early 80s, and because he’s a mensch, you can read it here
And that, O Best Beloved, is while I think it’s wrong to reduce copyright terms to 14 years, I think the Green Party have got it right that they need to be reduced; and if nothing else today’s furore has got the whole idea of copyright terms being discussed. Over to you, here or elsewhere, as you wish.[25 April ADDENDUM]:
Tom Chance, a previous Green Party spokesperson on "intellectual property", comments here and clarifies some of the confusion
. It's not over yet, the "just 14 years" meme is a powerful one and will continue to be raised; but it's going to be just one figure among many in a debate which needs a better resolution than Life plus 70 years.
Cross-posted from DreamWidth at http://murphys-lawyer.dreamwidth.org/198163.html
(provided Frank the Goat hasn't been at the vodka again). There are
comments there so far.