Yesterday, August 28th, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream”.
If you live in the US, you’ve probably heard of this speech. You’ve also probably never read it, heard the audio, or seen the video in its entirety.
Unfortunately, the speech is under copyright, and will remain so until 2083. As a result, it is illegal to republish under most circumstances.
c.1735 letter to an MP, discussing the impending decision over whether or not to grant copyright holders who, up until 21 years prior, had effective permanent monopolies an extension. One bookseller still had works of Shakespeare copyrighted; Richard III was written in 1592, the law granting only 21 more years was established in 1710.
The entire reason copyright was ecked out to only have a limited term (even in our own constitution, written far after this) was a revolt against permanent intellectual property monopoly.
To keep extending it, generation after generation, is an affront not only to the following generations but to the very creative ability of the current generation who have been robbed of the opportunity to benefit from reasonable contributions to the Public Domain.
(note; the amazon link as the source is not a referral link)
I’ve said it before - copyright registration should happen every four years, and cost $2^n to register, where n is the number of times it’s been renewed. This makes initial copyright nearly free, long-term copyright possible albeit expensive, and a much needed source of revenue for, say, patent oversight. This also reduces the number of orphaned works (as each time it’s renewed, the ownership status is confirmed). And by registering, with a full copy of the work, once it is out of copyright it can be made available digitally for free to anyone who wants it.
As an alternative, of course, to initiatives like Creative Commons - of which I am also a big fan.
The constitutional clause that enables our congress to enact copyright laws reads:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
It’s pretty arguable, given the graph of books available from Amazon’s warehouse grouped by year published, that current long-term copyright laws directly violate this clause - in fact, they work to dampen the progress of art.
How can we balance damage that extreme copyright terms do to the progress of art with financial incentives to generate said art? Obviously, most copyrighted material is only profitable at the very beginning of its term. We know more books were probably published in 1930 than in 1910. But the distinct availability of books from 1930 shows that most of them aren’t profitable now - they are out of print. Not only are they out of print, they are also still under copyright (of potentially unknown status) - so even if you wanted a copy, you would have to find a rare surviving copy. Is profitable art the only art worth preserving? I find that concept revolting. I would hope you do too.
So, long-term copyright is bad for works that do not continue to be profitable, by keeping them out of the public domain resource. By proxy, this is bad for the progress of art. But what about works of art that continue to be profitable decades, maybe even a century later? How do we allow for the same kinds of indefinite copyright we have now, while also allowing unprofitable works to fall into the public domain?
We could go back to the original copyright term. 14 years with an optional renewal for another 14 years. But that doesn’t cover Mickey Mouse (1928, Steamboat Willie). So Disney would hate that. It was great in 1790 when it was enacted, but it has no bearing on modern society.
What if we went a little radical with this, though? Especially now that we have computers to help us with some calculations. Let’s say after an initial 10 year time period, you could renew indefinitely every four years. Each time you renew, the cost is $2^n, where n is number of times you have renewed - first one is free. If, after 14 years, your work isn’t worth $2 to renew, it falls into public domain. After 18 years, $4. And so on: 22 - $8. 26 - $16. 30 - $32. 34 - $64. You see where this is going.
After 84 years, it would cost a little over $2,097,152 to renew the copyright on Steamboat Willie (and, by proxy, Mickey Mouse). I’m pretty certain Disney wouldn’t like that either, but they’d like it a lot better than no copyright at all. After all, I’m fairly certain Mickey Mouse is more profitable than $2 million dollars. But in 2016, that would go up to $4m. 2020, $8m. When cost to renew exceeds the profitability, the work falls into public domain.
And enriches all of our lives.
This would allow unprofitable works to fall into the public domain quicker. It enables us to know absolutely the copyright status and ownership of a particular work. It allows for out of print books/works of art/films/animated gifs to be profitable on the long tail (just like 19th century literature is). It balances the public good of creative works generation with the public destruction of indefinite copyright.
It enables everything to once again, legally, be a remix.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party.
It’s telling that there wasn’t a representative from the EFF to these negotiations.