Some Thoughts on Copyright Law

Yes, it’s one of those articles again. The sort where I get a bug up my ass about something or other and then blog about it for a few hundred words. In this case, I’ll be blogging about copyright law. Did you know that this very article is protected by copyright? It’s true. And due to the way the laws are written, the copyright on it won’t expire in 2040, like it should, but instead won’t expire until 2107. Take that, would-be copiers!

See, back in the day, the copyright laws in this country granted people copyrights on their work for 28 years. That’s not horrible, but people thought it was a bit short, and it was, so it got extended. Over time it’s been extended to the point it is at now, where anything produced under copyright law isn’t in the public domain until 95 years after it’s made.

This is not a good thing. As the video on this post indicates, companies like Disney, who have based much of their success on works in the public domain (Snow White, Cinderella, Tarzan, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, etc), would not be what they are today without copyrights expiring. The fact that they were one of the ones who pushed so hard to have the most recent extension in 1998 is very ironic, and was done mainly because they didn’t want Mickey Mouse to hit public domain.

I foresee a time before 2020 where an effort is made to extend the copyright laws further. At a guess, it will be at least to a nice, round, 100 year mark. If they get really ambitious, I imagine it will be extended out to something like 125 years. Whatever mark it is set at, you can bet there’s going to be serious effort at extending that range when it’s about to start expiring.

Currently under United States law, anything written, painted, filmed, etc, before 1923 is in the public domain. For those of you playing at home, that was 89 years ago, long before most of the world’s population was currently alive. The people behind creating pretty much any work prior to about 1940 are almost all dead. At this point it’s only the descendents of the authors, artists and composers, as well as the corporations that own the movies, who are making money off them. The original creators are long since gone.

Now I’m not one of those “information wants to be free!” people. I believe strongly in copyright law. Hell, since I do a lot of writing and hold ambitions to make money off it some day, you better believe I support copyrights. But that said, the current system is broken and very much needs to be fixed.

Here’s how I would fix copyright law. First off, I think we can all agree that works created by someone should remain under their ownership at least for the remainder of their life. I think that’s quite fair. It means that J K Rowling will be able to keep making money off Harry Potter until the day she dies. That seems reasonable to me.

I would then extend the copyright out by twenty years after the creator’s death. This means that the family of Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, would be able to keep making money from his works until 2027. That also seems reasonable to me.

Now in most cases, it’s easy to say who the “creator”, and therefore the copyright owner, is. But not always. In the case of books, I would consider the author the creator. Music, the composer. Paintings, sculptures and the like are all owned by the person who made them. For comic books, I’d say the person who created the character (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc), counts as the “creator” for purposes of copyright on that character only. Individual works would be copyrighted by the authors. So that’s easy enough, but then we get into two odd places: TV and movies.

Clearly one solution to copyrights for movies and TV shows is to say that they are under copyright until the last person involved in making them is dead. Do that, and I can promise you a sudden increase in infants joining SAG. So that’s clearly a stupid idea. Here’s a better one: in the case of movies, the director, and only the director, counts as “creator” for copyright purposes. This means Star Wars would remain under copyright until twenty years after the death of George Lucas, though it also means that The Empire Strikes Back would enter the public domain twenty years after the death of Irvin Kershner, who died in 2010. So, yes, different movies in the same series would enter the public domain at different times, but seldom do you have very long series of movies directed by many different people, so it’s not likely to be a major issue.

It is, however, a major issue with TV shows. If you take something like Star Trek, which had 79 episodes, and base your copyright law on the death of the director of each episode, you soon wind up with a mess. You could have half a season in public domain, and half out. It could get very messy, very fast.

So in the case of TV shows, I think the rule should be fifty years after they were first aired. By that time, everyone involved in making them will have had plenty of time to make money from them, as will the studio that made them. If they haven’t managed it by fifty years, they likely won’t manage it no matter how long you extend the copyright. So fifty years seems fair to me.

So that is what I would do. Life of the creator plus twenty years on books, movies, artwork and music. Fifty years from the first airing for TV shows. For the curious, that would mean that the following items that are not in the public domain right now, would be now or would be within a couple years.

Gone with the Wind, both the book and the movie
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie, not the book, which has been in the public domain for ages
Most, if not all, of the classic Universal Horror movies, like Frankenstein and Dracula
All of the Ian Flemming James Bond books
The movie versions of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball would all go into the public domain in 2014
The films of Alfred Hitchcock (including Psycho), F W Murnau, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles (including Citizen Kane), John Ford and David Lean
The first season of Doctor Who would go into the public domain in 2013
All of the Middle Earth books by J R R Tolkein. Ones written with, or by, his son remain under copyright, as would the movies
All of the Chronicles of Narnia, but not the movies
Every Charles Chaplin film
All the films of Michael Curtiz, including Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca
Season one of Star Trek in 2016
The characters of Superman (in 2016), and Wonder Woman, with Batman joining them in 2018

Imagine all that creative people could do with their own movies based on these works. Then explain to me why we’re better off with the current copyright structure that does nothing but benefit large corporations who have had enough time to make money off their works.