Using ‘Good Causes’ to Justify Our Greedy and Out of Control Copyright System

Anne FrankI think we are all in agreement that if Anne Frank had not believed that her diary would be protected for 95 years, well, she never would have written it. Right! I mean, that’s what writing is all about: making as much money as you possibly can for as many years after your death as possible. Because it isn’t even really about you or your family. It’s about the corporation that owns your work. The last thing you would want is for your work to be widely and freely available. Let’s not forget: the world changes a lot faster than it used to, so copyright needs to be a lot longer.

Wait. That doesn’t make sense, does it? I mean, the song “Yesterday” is really old. In any reasonable sense of the term, it is in the public domain. It doesn’t really belong to anyone. Certainly if it had been written in 1865 instead of 1965, it would have been well out of copyright fifty years later. And that was when times were slower. It made more sense. It might take decades to get the whole world humming “Yesterday.” In 1965, it took a couple of months. Today, it takes a couple of hours. Yet copyright length is more than twice as long as it was in 1865.

I started with Frank’s work, because two weeks ago, Michael Hiltzik wrote, The Squabble Over Anne Frank’s Diary Shows the Absurdity of Copyright Law. The Anne Frank Fonds owns the copyright to the diary. It is now 70 years after the murder of Anne Frank. According to the law in Europe, the diary should be in the public domain this January. But Fonds is having none of that! This is because they claim that her father, Otto Frank, is the co-author. He died 1980. Thus, we must wait until 2050 at the earliest for the book to belong to the people.

It turns out that the Anne Frank Fonds does a lot of good work with the money that it makes. But what it is doing with its copyrights is exactly the same as what any other soulless corporation is doing. The most recent US copyright law — the Sonny Bono Act — increased copyright to 95 years. As Hiltzik put it:

The act wasn’t aimed at encouraging artistic expression, [Arizona State law professor Dennis] Karjala says. It was pushed by corporate entities such as the Walt Disney Co, which would soon lose rights to the earliest films featuring Mickey Mouse. “They were all concerned about the cutoff of the royalty spigot,” Karjala says.

It’s just a corporate game. When I last wrote to Dean Baker about Fantasia not being in the public domain, he said, “It’s all about Mickey Mouse (literally).” Indeed it is. Oh, the money that would be lost to a bunch of people who have never had a creative idea outside the realm of finance in their lives! The truth is that I’m sure that the Anne Frank Fonds would get along just fine without the copyright to the diary. And I’m sure that the MLK family would get along just fine with the copyright to his “I Have a Dream” speech.

But these are the “good causes” that are trotted out to justify a totally out of control copyright system — one that does nothing to encourage writing and a great deal to harm it.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “Using ‘Good Causes’ to Justify Our Greedy and Out of Control Copyright System

  1. It really is Mickey Mouse. It’s not the artists who drew the cartoons or the writers who crafted the Mickey stories. A genuinely beautiful film like “Up,” who gets the revenue? Thousands of people contributed to it. Maybe director Pete Decter and scriptwriter Thomas McCarthy get a little piece of the box office, maybe Ed Asner (a staunch super-liberal, BTW!) a tiny piece as well. But ultimately most of the Pixar artists were paid once by Disney and they will never get paid again (I dunno, maybe some get royalty checks for a few cents every so often.)

    It’s essentially Disney taking a gamble that spending “x” amount paying craftspersons once will pay off in bigger profits later. This has worked out with the Pixar films, which were done by people who valued contributing to a shared vision (they’ve fallen off recently, except for “Inside Out,” but you couldn’t expect that level of excellence to continue forever.)

    Is this the best way to create art which people can enjoy? What about idiosyncratic art which is meant specifically for only a small number of people to enjoy very intensely? (And, no, that’s not the same thing as coprophagia porn, since one is made by rote for the sole pursuit of profit and idiosyncratic art is made with love knowing that only a few will enjoy it . . . although there is some overlap.)

    In my dream world, how would we fix intellectual-property copyright laws? For one thing, we’d shorten them drastically. As you note, most people will buy a hit thing fairly quickly these days.

    For another, we could imagine some way of reversing the take between creator and corporate publisher. Stephen King deserves to not have his excellent JFK novel stolen and someone else making money by charging for reading his work. Isn’t that essentially what publishers do?

    I don’t see why publishers are economically/artistically necessary. The only current art form which costs a lot to make is movies, and with very, very few exceptions, more money spent does not equal better art. Besides, state-run production companies overseas up the budget a little bit for projects they think will have international appeal (not to “Transformers” level, and where’s the big loss? Artist-run cooperatives would be even better than state-run, BTW.)

    If we must have private investors funding these things, it should be that Pixar artists get most of the money when “Up” is a hit, and private investors are the ones getting royalty checks for a few cents years later.

    There are serious points to be made about whether some damnably hard piece of work should be made available to everyone for free or if the creators deserve some compensation. That compensation shouldn’t go through a for-profit company, certainly not some fake profit-sharing scam like Kickstarter.

    This stuff is nuts. If you post a link to some “illegal” clip of something that came out 20+ years ago, how much money in reduced DVD sales are you costing the company? Virtually nothing and you might even make others want to examine newer material along the same lines.

    Even nuttier, that “copyright protection” is decided on by the publishers and not the artists. Maybe Paul McCartney’s a shithead who would go after anyone posting a YouTube cover of “Penny Lane.” I dunno. What’s clear is that’s not his choice. Whatever conglomerate owns his Beatles songs now (Sony, I think?) can sell the rights of cover versions to any fuckbasket selling some product (not the originals, it seems.) And Sir Paul certainly does not agree with that.

    Bringing me to my last rant (I haven’t had access to my laptop in a while, I’m going mental with enjoying a keyboard again), which I’ll put where it belongs.

    • Things are a lot better than you would imagine in the film industry because it is still heavily unionized. But I take your point.

      In years past, publishers and record companies developed artists. Now, to get a decent publishing contract, you have to convince the publisher that you will be able to sell the book. What kind of traffic does your website get? What podcasts will interview you? What kind of book tour will you put together? They basically don’t do anything. Just the same, the industry is dying. But it is largely their own fault. I have one of my out-of-print books coming out late next year. There’s no doubt if I had wanted to deal with the hassle, I could have made a lot more money going it alone. But I don’t want the hassle. I’m really just doing it because people are always bugging me for it.

      As for Paul, well, he’s been whining for decades about wanting to get the rights to his songs back. The man is worth upwards of a billion dollars. If he really wanted them, he would have them. He can go screw himself. He’s no John Fogerty, who was wronged for a long time. But again, I agree with your broader point.

      • Ah, yes, good example — if he REALLY hated those ads he could buy the rights back and have 999,999 million left over. Quite right. I tend to over-worship people whose art I enjoy and imagine they have principles I feebly try to stand by, when they are vastly rich and don’t face the challenges those of us with no money wrestle with.

        I still like their art, though. But they are rich and I probably wouldn’t get along with them.

        • I greatly admire Paul McCartney. He is certainly one of the ten best songwriters of the last century. But I still maintain that it totally unreasonable for “Yesterday” to not be in the public domain. Of course, it is — just not in a legal sense. So even though I can appreciate him wanting control of his music, and I would much rather he had control rather than some corporation, I don’t think anyone should have control.

          Currently, I think a copyright of 10 years is about right.

          • Maybe, in a dream of a functioning world, we could also include a law where artists and their inheritors have the right forever to ban use of material for monetary purposes. Provided they don’t make such use of it themselves. You get exclusive rights for 10 years, after that, anyone distributing it for free is allowed to. Post-10-years, you can ban use of the material for money if you never use it for money.

    • @James Fillmore –
      Regarding your point about “illegal” DVD clips leading to renewed interest, I have my own anecdotal experience to relate. Back when the original incarnation of Napster was around, I heard “Ne me quitte pas” on the radio and came home with an intense urge to listen to some Jacques Brel. (These days I would go straight to YouTube or Spotify, but those were simpler times.) I fired up Napster, typed in “brel”, and got a few dozens of hits – many for Jacques Brel, but even more for an artist I’d never heard of, Francis Cabrel.
      Long story short: I ended up pirating a few Cabrel tracks and discovering one of my all-time favorite artists. I’ve ended up buying over 15 of his CDs*, some more than once (as gifts) – and those sales would never have happened without Napster. This is not a legal or even moral defense of music piracy – I’ve long since hung up my eyepatch – but simply an example of where a short-term loss paid off for the artist (or the publisher, whichever) long-term.

      * Of course I’ve ripped those CDs to MP3 – I’m not a Luddite!

      • Good anecdote. I got pissed off watching the last season of “Mad Men.” It’s well-filmed, whatever one thinks of it (I liked it, many don’t, for good reasons) and I wanted to see the excellent cinematography/production design on my big TV, not my laptop.

        Except I couldn’t. I was willing to buy the episodes on iTunes, but that has code in it forbidding transfer of the episodes to another device so I couldn’t watch them on my big TV. Again, gorgeous production values on that show. I wanted the big TV.

        What other options did I have? I’m not gonna buy cable, I hate most TV. So I pirated the episodes, and I don’t regret it for a second. AMC/iTunes, I had money I was quite willing to spend (legal downloads are faster) and the legal sources pissed it away. Dumber than dirt!

        Really good anecdote, though, keep ’em coming, much better than mine here!

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