Talkin’ Copyright Blues

May 30th, 2006 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

Just before we headed off for our long weekend of fun, fun, fun, we paused over Sara Nelson’s comments about Kevin Kelly’s New York Times Magazine article “Scan This Book”. Nelson specifically takes issue with Kelly’s comments on copyright — even as she agrees that there are serious problems.

Copyright in this country is a mess. Kelly noted that copyright was originally established to protect the artist, a sort of quid pro quo. The government would protect rights to an artist’s work for a certain period of time; in return, the artist would allow his or her work to enter the “public domain” after that period of time expired. Due to the impending entry of Mickey Mouse into said public domain, our copyright protections have been extended to 70 years past the life of the creator.

Nelson argues, quite rightly, that artists deserve this protection for their hard work. She then argues that their heirs deserve fair compensation (Nelson has clearly never worked in a situation where she’s had to deal with bickering heirs who then sub-divide their shares of a property until it’s a patchwork quilt of irritation). Finally she acknowledges the sad truth about copyright:

Yes, it’s hard to keep track of copyright, especially when publishers (who, essentially, “lease” copyright from the author) disappear and morph and merge, as they do.

If we do agree that copyright exists to protect the artist, then why aren’t we having a serious discussion about the fact that publishers lock up rights to books by playing with the notion of “in print” to extend their contractual terms (heck, how long before we see litigation about digital exploitation as publishers try to stretch definitions while authors point out that “digital” was never granted, explicitly or implicitly)? Why aren’t we discussing the fact that due to disappearances and morphs and mergers, there are untold numbers of orphaned works? How is it that tracking down copyright owners (a Constitutionally-protected class) is an exercise in frustration? Why have we reached the point where copyright is such a money-maker for corporate interests that the basic building blocks of art — other art — cannot be accessed? If you need an example of a system gone out-of-control, try to make a documentary using historical film footage. Whatever happened to the concept of fair use?

Artists deserve fair compensation for their work (heck, they deserve, whenever possible, to become filthy rich), but if we’re going to argue that copyright provides protection, then we also need to face the fact that copyright isn’t truly protecting those it was intended to serve. We have to discuss the idea that sometimes copyright protections limit an artist’s ability to exploit his or her work — and, yes, that “copyright” limits access to books.

Since the publication of Kelly’s article, the publishing industry has taken a “circle the wagons” attitude. But the truth of the matter is that what Nelson calls a “new business model” is not a pie-in-the-sky vision. Outside the publishing industry, the world is turning faster than ever before, and if we truly want to protect copyright, we need to acknowledge these changes today.

And that includes asking tough questions about copyright and how it serves artists.

[tags]publishing, copyright, books, sara nelson, kevin kelly, scan this book[/tags]

File Under: Our Continuing Fascination With Copyright

1 response so far ↓

  • Eoin Purcell // May 30, 2006 at 2:52 pm

    Great post and it somehow manages to ask all the right questions!
    I think it is clear that the original purpose of copyright has been distorted by companies and families to their own ends.
    But the solutions to your questions are not easy. Perhaps to attack the orphans question a register of copyrights would go some way towards preventing it getting worse in the future but I fear we will never break the backlog.