Thinking On The Copyright Thing. Again.

May 3rd, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

We were intrigued enough by this statement. . .

Thomas Macaulay told us copyright law is a tax on readers for the benefit of writers, a tax that shouldn’t last a day longer than necessary. What do we do? We extend the copyright term repeatedly on both sides of the Atlantic. The US goes from fourteen years to the author’s life plus seventy years. We extend protection retrospectively to dead authors, perhaps in the hope they will write from their tombs.

. . .that we made one of our infrequent forays into the world of research. Let us assure you that you can truly find anything on the Internet. And that may very well be the point being made. Macaulay opposed extending the copyright period, using the following as a central point in his argument:

I will take an example. Dr Johnson died fifty-six years ago. If the law were what my honourable and learned friend wishes to make it, somebody would now have the monopoly of Dr Johnson’s works. Who that somebody would be it is impossible to say; but we may venture to guess. I guess, then, that it would have been some bookseller, who was the assign of another bookseller, who was the grandson of a third bookseller, who had bought the copyright from Black Frank, the doctor’s servant and residuary legatee, in 1785 or 1786.

The nature of the tax asserted by Macaulay has changed somewhat. It is now an even more tangible out-of-pocket expense. Stealing copyrights is a crime; thieves must be prosecuted. This causes taxpayers to pay money (which we understand does not grow on trees). In essence, taxpayers put out to protect private interests.

Copyright is essential to ensure that artists receive their fair payment for their work. In return for this public protection, artists would give back in the form of limited copyright terms. Their art could create the basis of other art. It is this quid pro quo that makes the public’s investment worthwhile. The artist wins and the public wins.

Part of the delusion depends on the idea that inventors and artists create from nothing. Who needs a public domain of accessible material if one can create out of thin air? But in most cases this simply isn’t true; artists, scientists and technologists build on the past. How would the blues, jazz, Elizabethan theatre, or Silicon valley have developed if they had been forced to play under today’s rules?

Now art is part of a huge collection of intellectal property. It isn’t necessarily owned by the artist. Copyright law has been rewritten to protect motion picture studios (the irony of the particular studio at the forefront of this sea-change in law has never been lost on us). So much art is locked up in vaults, in a manner of speaking, and off limits to the public. Yes, that same public who agreed to take an active role in protecting the artists’ rights to fair remuneration.

(This necessarily leads us to consider the concept of orphaned art; sometimes the artist cannot be found, despite the best efforts of people. There must be a solution to this. We will continue to think.)

That authors will be protected for the duration of their lives is fair. That corporations should have a right to their intellectual property is fair. We might soften our stance when certain corporations somehow offer recompense for the rights they’ve exploited without regard to the artists. That would be putting money where mouths are.

Current copyright law is a tax, though one we willingly pay. It was never intended to protect corporations — it was intended to protect individuals. Times have changed. Times will continue to change, more dramatically than anyone can anticipate. If the public is going to invest in protecting art, the public deserves something in return. Especially if 96% of that art we’re guarding is hidden from view.

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