(This) was, ultimately, responsible for the existence of Hollywood. All the major studios paid a fee to Thomas Edison for the right to make movies: The motion picture was his invention and he had to be reimbursed for each and every film.
But there was such a need for material that pirate companies, which did not pay the fee, sprang up. The major studios hired detectives to stop this practice, driving many of the pirates as far from the New York area as possible. Sure, Hollywood had all that great shooting weather. But more than that, being three thousand miles west made it easier to steal.
This morning, I saw this article on how the British government is planning to extend copyright protection from 50 to 100 years. This would bring it more or less in line with the US, which grants copyright until 70 - 95 years after the author’s death—a period extended in 1998 after lobbying from media companies, primarily Disney.
I’m a writer and earn my entire living from copyright, but this is nuts. Copyright has become a corrupt, bastardized version of itself. Rather than serving as a way to encourage creative works, today it’s a method of fencing off ideas and blocking creativity. And some of the companies pushing hardest for new intellectual property laws are the same ones that owe their existence to breaking them.
We invented copyright to encourage innovation: to make it worthwhile for people to create their own artistic works, rather than copy and sell someone else’s. The aim is not to bequeath eternal rights to an idea, or to make artists fabulously wealthy; it’s to provide society with new books, films, songs, and other art. Copyright provides incentive, but the incentive itself is not the point of the law: the point is to encourage creative behavior.
Having a few years of copyright protection is a good incentive. But a hundred years? Or seventy years after my death? (If I live to 80, it will become legal to print your own copy of Jennifer Government in 2123.) There’s no additional incentive in that. There is nobody, and no company, thinking, “Well, this is a good song, but if I only get to keep all the money it makes for the next 50 years… nah, not worth developing it.”
Copyright extensions, of the kind popping up everywhere lately, have nothing to do with encouraging more creative work, and everything to do with protecting the revenue streams of media companies that, a few generations ago, had an executive smart enough to sniff out a popular hit. It’s a grab for cash at the public’s expense. The fact that there is any posthumous copyright protection at all proves that the law is intended to benefit people who are not the original creator: that is, heirs and corporations. The fact that copyright extensions retroactively apply to already-created works proves they’re not meant to encourage innovation. The only reason copyright extension laws keep getting passed is because the people and companies that became fabulously rich through someone else’s idea are using that wealth to lobby government for more of it.
I’d make copyright a flat ten years. You come up with a novel, a song, a movie, whatever: you have ten years to make a buck out of it. After that, anyone can make copies, or create spin-offs, or produce the movie version, or whatever. Now that would be an incentive. You’d see all kinds of new art, both during the copyright period, as artists rush to make the most of their creation, and after, when everybody else can build on what they’ve done and make something new. You’d see much cheaper versions of books and movies that were a decade old. You wouldn’t have the descendants of some writer refusing to allow new media featuring the Daleks, or Tintin, or whatever. And artists with massive hits would be merely rich, not super-rich.
A century-long copyright (in the UK), or a lifetime plus seventy years (in the US) means books, songs, and films created before you were born will still be locked up when you die. During your life, you will see no new versions, no reworkings, reinterpretations, remixes, or indeed any copies at all, unless they are approved by whoever happened to inherit the original artist’s estate, or whichever company bought it.
Media companies are quick to throw around the word “thief” whenever a teenager burns a CD or shares a file over the internet. But this is theft, too, when an artist’s work is kept away from the public for a century. Ten years is incentive. A hundred years is gluttony.