Wow! Copyright Ran Out for a Change

Wow! Copyright Ran Out for a ChangeThis 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.[1]) 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.

Good News?

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.[2] 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.

My Proposal

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.

Good News!

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

8 thoughts on “Wow! Copyright Ran Out for a Change

  1. We can hope, but I wouldn’t count any chickens. For instance, If the recent attempt to revive Edgar Rice Burroughs via Tarzan and John Carter movies had been more successful, some corp might have seen fit to push for a new copyright extension. They might still. I assume you’re aware that Disney seems intent on acquiring further vast swaths of popular culture lately.

    1 “John Carter” (2012) was a Disney movie and both John Carter and Tarzan first appeared in 1912. Disney also made a Tarzan animated feature a few years back (1999) although the 2016 Tarzan was a Warner flick.
    2 Disney recently bought not only Pixar and Marvel, but the Star Wars empire as well.

    • When Disney took over Pixar, I was nervous at first. “Cars 2”? Really? But they really rebounded with “Inside Out.”

      The director of that movie went to great lengths in interviews to say “it’s not about depression.” Nice try, sir. The kid’s mental happy places falling into an abyss, one after the other? OK, maybe that’s not technically just depression; it’s suicidal depression. Close enough. Might as well say “Wall-E” isn’t about total ecosystem collapse, it’s just a plucky little robot.” And the guy who wrote “Up” didn’t also write “Spotlight.”

      As for “Star Wars,” that franchise can’t die soon enough. Odd thing: when I was a teenage nerd, we had a whole pecking order of sci-fi franchises. “Star Trek” was considered the ultimate, although we’d grudgingly allow that “Star Wars” had way better effects. “Doctor Who” fans were beneath contempt.

      How things change! “Doctor Who” is now the only one of those three worth watching!

      • I’ve never seen the newer Doctor Who. When I watched it, Doctor Who was pretty lame — even by the standards of the late 1970s. A lot of my friends like the new ones. But I don’t need new things to watch. I already have too much!

    • My big concern is that, for example, Mickey Mouse goes into the public domain and then Disney starts suing people over incremental changes to the character. These suits would be frivolous, but that hardly means they wouldn’t be successful given our “justice” system. I think that’s what you are getting at regarding John Carter and Tarzan. All of the major content providers are evil and they (like oil companies) will happily destroy our society in the name of increasing next quarter’s profits.

  2. Seems there is more than one way to skin a cat or to extend copyright. I gather that the current copyright term in the EU is life plus 70 years, and that there have been attempts to “harmonize” US law with theirs. And I don’t expect we’ve seen the last of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) either. See below.


    Draft copies of the TPP first came to the public via Wikileaks, whose founder Julian Assange is currently under US indictment and whose plight is being all but ignored by the corporate media, the so-called champions of the First Amendment.

    The TPP goes far beyond even the odious corporate tribunals superseding the laws of sovereign governments. It would force signatories to extend copyright to life plus 70 years and impose draconian penalties for what is now known as protected “Fair use” of such copyrighted materials. It also imposes top-down control of the Internet and limits the rights of individuals to shield their personal information from bad actors. (Read: Facebook.) Hollywood and Silicon Valley, big donors to the DNC, had a lot of input in the crafting of the TPP, whose full text was not even to be made public until five years after ratification. Before she was allegedly against it, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton described the TPP as “the gold standard of trade agreements.” Ka-ching.

    • Interestingly, about a century ago, it was Europe who was pushing the US for extended copyrights. Now it is more the other way. But both are more than happy to do this. The problem is that copyrights are big money for corporations but very little for people. Thus there isn’t a lot of pushback. But thank God for the librarians and organizations like the EFF.

      For the record: I don’t know what the copyright is in the EU. I’m not even that clear on it in the US. There are all kinds of weird things. And there is the copyright if it is owned by the author and then another if it is owned by a corporation. It’s madness. But works I would think would be copyrighted often are not and works I would think are in the public domain are not. So I don’t know.

      The biggest problem with the TPP was its extensions of IP protections. Those weren’t meant to increase trade. That was just a way of allowing corporations to collect more rents on their holdings. It was outrageous. And I would argue that it was the primary reason for the TPP given that tariffs are already very low between those countries.

    • Ah, Criterion comes to the rescue again. They also put out Night of the Living Dead, which (because of an error on the prints) is not copyrighted.

      Criterion is the only company I’ve allowed to send me their newsletter. And it’s dangerous! It causes me to spend more than I should!

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