This year, works of art created in 1923 went out of copyright and are now in the public domain. This is a big deal because it hasn’t happened in decades because when copyright was about to run out in 1999 (on works published in 1923), the US government extended copyright protection for another 20 years.
Let’s think about this for a second. What does it mean, socially, for a work to be in the public domain? Obviously, it means that the work belongs to everyone. But why? I think it is because everyone knows it. To use the most important example, does anyone know who created Mickey Mouse? (It wasn’t Walt Disney.) For 99 percent of people (that’s no exaggeration), the answer is no. But they sure do know who Mickey Mouse is!
But this is just a way of thinking. I’m not arguing that we use it as a test. If it were, it would allow the most famous people to hold onto copyright longer — exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do. (For example, most people around me know that Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday.”) Once a work of art becomes suffused in society, it is in the public domain — whether the law agrees or not.
Public Domain Is Too Far Behind the Present
It has been a troubling irony that as society has sped up — as art has changed faster — works have gone into the public domain (legally) slower. Just look at the films that have just now been put in the public domain. They are all in black and white. They are all silent.
Meanwhile, films gained sound. They gained color. Video was invented. And now films are largely made on computers. And yet all that we legally allow into the public domain are films so old that children can’t enjoy them. Indeed, the only people who enjoy them are people who take film serious and understand its technique and history.
Last year, Timothy B Lee wrote a very optimistic article, Why Mickey Mouse’s 1998 Copyright Extension Probably Won’t Happen Again. Basically, it all comes down to the fact that a lot of defenders of freedom (the real kind; not the libertarian kind) have sprung up like the Electronic Frontier Foundation that are fighting back.
But I think there is another issue. We are now at the ridiculously long 95-year copyright. The stuff being released is so old it has virtually no value as a commodity. As a result, the bad PR is probably not worth the little money the corporation can squeeze out of these works. Is any corporation really going to release a DVD of Safety Last!? It’s doubtful.
So most corporate copyright holders just don’t care. Maybe Disney will make an effort to protect Mickey Mouse from the horrors of pornography. But without the entire industry lobbying and claiming “No one will make movies anymore!” it isn’t likely that Congress is going to act.
And note, creative development is still accelerating. So in 20 years, the stuff that falls out of copyright will be even further behind the times.
From what I know about publishing (which is a lot), I have developed what I think are extremely fair terms for copyright owners. (Note I didn’t say “content creators,” because most owners did not create any content.) Copyright should last for ten years from publication with an optional extension of 10 years. So the maximum copyright length would be 20 years.
I actually think making the extension 5 years is fairer. But I’m trying to be really nice.
This would more than keep the film, music, book, and art industries going. The vast majority of the money they make is in the first year of publication. In fact, if corporations acted like normal people, they wouldn’t even care after 5 years. The amount of money that comes in is trivial at that point.
But as I’ve noted many times before: if a corporation could make an extra dollar by exporting its entire workforce, it would do it without thought. That’s corporate-think. And it is really something that we should fight as a society.
So if the corporate world is really done pushing copyright to be longer and longer, we have an opportunity. We can now go on the aggressive. We can push for copyrights to be reduced.
In Lee’s article, he implies that the 56-year copyright of decades ago was reasonable. It wasn’t. And the author’s life plus 50 years was not reasonable.
We can’t allow the absurd modern copyright length to blind us from the fact that in the modern world, a copyright length of ten years is more than enough. Anything else is just corporate welfare.
 Yes, I don’t think much of vague notions about “ideas” when it comes to creative productions. I have millions of ideas. It all comes down to how it is rendered. And when people like Stan Lee and Walt Disney try to take credit for these things, I bristle.
 This is a common argument made. It is, of course, not why Disney cares about this issue. It’s all about money. It’s always all about money.