A Copyright Primer

On Monday I wrote a rant about ASCAP’s claims that Creative Commons should be shut down.  This is a follow-up to that post; this one is a rant on copyright in general.  All sources consulted will have direct links somewhere within this post (as in the previous sentence).

There are honestly some very good things about current copyright legislation.  The number one strength of copyright is that any work put to paper/computer/canvas/wherever is automatically subjected to copyright law (provided your country is a member of the Berne Convention).  There’s no need to pay for protection, nor do you need to put the little copyright symbol at the end of your work.  It’s fully protected by law, and no one can touch it without your permission.

Under this free basic protection, your copyright will expire after a certain amount of time, allowing other people to build upon your original work to create something else without asking permission.  That’s fantastic, except that the current term is far too long: the length of the author’s life plus an additional 70 years!

Why is this significant?  Well, consider how copyright term has evolved in the US.  In 1790, a copyright would last you jusy shy of 30 years.  It was changed in 1831 to over 40 years, up to 50 in 1909, and kept on getting amended until we sit at copyright terms that can last as long as 100 years!

The biggest proponent to get these laws amended was Disney.  They needed to protect Mickey Mouse, and all their other original creations.  I will admit that it’s fair that they want to protect the rights of their work so that nobody can profit from Mickey’s image, or use him in inappropriate settings.  But how is this fair, when Disney’s early movies were all based on public domain fairy tales?

Disney has made enormous profits by taking an existing story and making something original out of it.  Rather than returning the favour, they would rather lock down copyrights and prevent anyone from using their material – forever, if they have their way.  I’m not trying to say that everyone should have the right to create their own original Mickey Mouse cartoons.  I’m instead trying to suggest that the original intent of copyright has been blurred and distorted.

I don’t have a problem with a copyright term that lasts for the life of the author – I’m even flexible enough to say that the life of the author plus 10 to 20 years is reasonable.  I think that the author definitely should be able to protect their creations and prevent others from profiting off their creativity – but after the author is dead, what use is the protection?  The current ridiculously long protection really only serves corporations like Disney, and not the individual creator.

I just have a short story to tell in conclusion, related to my post earlier this week.

My brother, a musician with an album on the way, made a comment on my post the other day about ASCAP vs Free Culture.  He said that he prefers the ability to protect his music and maintain creative control over what other people do with it (if he allows other people to use it).  His argument was that by using Creative Commons, he has no such control.  I pointed out to him that there are licenses under Creative Commons that allow you to keep control and protect your rights just the same as a copyright. 

I wasn’t trying to convince him to shuck his record label and conventional copyrights, but merely to illustrate that there IS a choice and that it’s important to keep that choice available.  While I have strong beliefs about all that’s wrong about copyright, I recognize that in its current form it works for some people, and others not. 

Free Culture is NOT evil – it’s the corporations that push to protect their copyrights solely to keep making money.  While that is their number one priority (making money), it should be everyone’s focus to continue to create new and interesting things and be able to build on other people’s work if necessary.

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