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.


Alone Among the “Civilized”

In 2011, 20 countries carried out state-mandated murders against helpless people, something more euphemistically called “capital punishment”. And if you don’t categorize convicted criminals as “helpless”, ask yourself how helpless you’d be locked in a small cell with several large, armed men coming to put you in chains and haul you off to die.

Those countries are:

South Sudan
Saudi Arabia
North Korea

And in case you didn’t see this one coming…

The United States of America

Notice the company we keep on this list. States like North Korea, Iran and Syria, who are known sponsors of state sanctioned terrorism. Dictatorships like Belarus. Countries who were so rotten that we invaded them, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Notice also the countries that aren’t on that list. Mexico, Russia, Libya. And then there’s us. The land of the free, the home of the brave, etc. A nation not built on the concept of revenge, but one that’s fully embraced it.

Don’t pretend the death penalty is anything other than revenge and murder. It’s clearly not self-defense, since we’re quite capable of putting people in prison and keeping them from escaping. Don’t pretend it’s a deterrent, because we know it isn’t. Don’t pretend it’s anything other than revenge and murder. Revenge against someone for doing something we don’t like, and murder because they’re helpless and a threat to no one at the time they are killed (and if you do think they’re a threat, again, ask yourself how much of a threat you could be locked in a 6′ by 8′ cell with large armed guards available 24/7).

We continue with this bizarre, appalling, barbaric practice despite the fact that we like to claim we’re the best, most civilized country in the world. Many people also like to claim we’re uniquely virtuous and Christian. I guess if you think that your god was killed by capital punishment, than perhaps it isn’t too bad, but remember that as far as I know, Jesus never called for people to be murdered by the state.

We can and should be doing better. I don’t want us on the same list with these other countries.

On Drug Legalization

This is a paper I wrote my my sociology class. I got 100% on it, and the teacher seemed overall impressed. I thought I’d share it with you guys and see what you think! Enjoy!

Allow me to stay up front that I do not do drugs. I never have. I have zero interest in them. I don’t see the attraction. I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. That aside, I firmly and fully believe that all drugs should be legalized, heavily regulated and taxed. I believe this for several reasons.

Freedom Matters – I don’t feel that I have the right to tell you what you can and cannot put into your body. I strongly disapprove of tattoos. I think they look stupid, and if you have a whole bunch of them snaking down your arms, I’m going to make certain unfavorable assumptions about you (which aren’t necessarily accurate, but there you are). But having tattoos is your choice, and I would never dream of telling you that you can’t have them.

Drugs are the same. It’s not my business if you choose to snort a line of coke. It’s your body and what you put into it is your concern. I don’t think you should be doing it, but if you decide to, well, it’s your choice.

Now it becomes my problem if you make poor choices while on drugs. If you get really whacked out on meth and decide to go driving, or get high on coke and shoot someone, those are serious issues. But we have laws that already cover those problems (driving while intoxicated and a variety of laws about shooting people), so having further laws that make even the use of drugs illegal in case someone does those things is pointless.

The fight against drugs also erodes other freedoms. Without the drug war, we likely wouldn’t have any court rulings allowing retroactive search warrants, yet we have that today. That’s not to mention things like drug screenings for jobs and drug screenings for kids in after-school events.

Perhaps connected to the freedom issue is the fact that, well, this interferes with capitalism. Surely under a capitalist system, people should be able to buy and use whatever products they want, as long as they aren’t causing physical harm to any other person or property that isn’t theirs?

Think of the Children! – Right now, drug dealers can and do sell their products to anyone with money. This means if a twelve-year-old wants to buy crack and has money, there’s nothing stopping her from doing so.

On the other hand, it’s a bit more difficult for said twelve-year-old to get access to alcohol or cigarettes. It’s not impossible, but it is harder due to the fact that we have laws restricting what age you have to be in order to buy those things. If drugs were legalized and sold in stores that were required to card people for purchases, you can bet the instances of use among people who are under age would go down. It wouldn’t vanish entirely, because there are always ways around the law, but they would at least decrease.

This Costs How Much?! – The War on Drugs is expensive. This year we’re spending about $23 billion to fight this war. What else could we spend that money on? That’s far more than NASA gets each year. If we legalized and taxed drugs, I’m sure we’d more than make back the $23 billion, plus we wouldn’t be spending that money to fight the drugs. That’s about $46 billion we’d have each year. Funnel $10 billion into setting up really good treatment centers for those who want to stop and can’t, and even after that we have $36 billion left over. Imagine what we could do with an extra $36 billion for our schools.

Keeping Drugs Illegal Stifles Treatment – Let’s say that you’re very much into something that’s illegal. You want to stop being so into that something, but you are reluctant to join treatment efforts, even though you know they exist. You’re afraid that the authorities might monitor such treatment programs, and you might even be right about that. So you don’t get treatment and your problem spirals.

One of the reasons AA is so successful is because alcohol use isn’t illegal. This means that people who seek treatment aren’t admitting to any wrongdoing. With drugs, it’s a whole other matter, and that can cause problems.

Prohibition Doesn’t Work – In just about every prison in this country you can get just about any drugs you want. In prison. In the most heavily regulated and controlled environment this nation is able to create, you can get drugs. Given that fact, there’s no way and no laws we can ever make that will keep people in the outside world from using them.

Back in 1920, we passed a Amendment to the US Constitution that banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. That was when we learned that if you take something a huge number of people want, and make that something illegal, you’ll soon find yourself fighting a nasty war against your own people as organized crime parties down.

The amendment was widely viewed as a massive failure, and was repealed in 1933 after much blood and treasure was spent trying to enforce it. We’d learned our lessons when it came to alcohol. We have yet to learn them when it comes to drugs.

Summation – The simple fact is that there are a lot of people want to do drugs for whatever reason. Those people will do so, and no laws against drug use will make them stop. By keeping drugs illegal we create an air of mystique about them, and we also increase disrespect for the law in general. We further cast aside any possible monies that can be made from legalization and allow that money to go to drug lords who have no problems doing very evil things to keep their money flowing.

Some might argue that legalization creates many social problems, but what they don’t recognize is that those social problems already exist. Making drugs legal won’t add to those problems to any great degree and, by increasing the odds of treatment, might even go some way to removing or lessening the effects of those problems.

I’d certainly say it’s worth a try.

Beacuse Religious People Never Commit Crimes

Bay Minette, Alabama, has a quaint idea for criminal justice, and by “quaint” I mean “incredibly un-Constitutional.” Their idea is this: rather than putting people in jail for minor offenses, they’re allowing said people to attend church every Sunday for a year.

This is stupid on so many levels. First of all, what if your religious denomination doesn’t have a church in the area? I’m sure there’s plenty of Catholic churches, Baptist and Presbyterian, but suppose you’re part of some more obscure Protestant denomination? Or what if your particular religion isn’t in the area at all? This doesn’t strike me as a place that’s likely to have or welcome any mosques, so Muslims couldn’t participate. What if you’re Hindu? Are they likely to have any Hindu temples in the area?

That’s not even asking the question of: what if you’re an atheist? Why should you be forced to spend time in jail rather than go to church? I’m sure the powers that be would simply shrug their shoulders and say, hey, if you don’t wanna go to church, that’s your choice, but if you’re an atheist it’s really not any kind of a choice at all. It’d be like telling a Catholic their only choice is jail or spending each week going to Southern Baptist services.

There’s also the question of what exactly they expect this to accomplish. I’m sure the people behind this approach religion with the belief that it’s a good, wonderful force that will somehow many people more moral if they are exposed to it. This ignores things like children being raped by priests, numerous televangelists having problems and people of all stripes, including Christians, committing acts of terrorism.

Then, lastly, there’s the fact that this is wildly illegal. It’s done to save money, and I promise you that there’s going to be a lawsuit. The end result of that lawsuit will be that the city winds up spending far more money in court costs than it would have spent just sending people to jail for a few days. They will likely fight tooth and nail to keep this law and it’s going to cost them so much money. It’s really quite sad.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m in favor of doing things to keep people out of jail. I think our desire to incarcerate as many people as possible is very self-destructive. But there’s right ways to do it and wrong ways, and this is clearly wrong.

Mandatory Lawyers

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

That is, as I’m sure most of you know, the standard text of the so-called Miranda warning. It’s generally read to suspects prior to interrogation by the police. It’s a good, sound warning, and a lot of people ignore it, though if you’re ever in a situation where a cop reads you that warning, you need to take it to heart.

There’s a problem with the American criminal system. Well, there’s lots of problems, but the one I’m going to address now is false convictions. We don’t know how many there are, but I’m willing to bet the number is better than 1%, though likely not as high as 5%. Any wrongful conviction is, of course, a major problem. It’s not just a problem for the person being convicted, but it’s also a problem for the system as a whole, because it means the person who actually did the crime is not being punished and is free to reoffend.

I’ve been thinking about a way to minimize these wrongful convictions and I think I have come up with a good one. It basically boils down this: in any circumstances where a suspect would normally be read their Miranda warning, they should instead be automatically assigned a lawyer who must be present during police questioning. It’s the same right you have under Miranda, only in this case it would be an automatic fact. You could choose to waive your right, but before you do the lawyer you are assigned would have to explain to you the possible consequences.

Now you might think this would lead to career criminals getting off scot-free on everything they’ve done. All they’ll have to do is lawyer up and that will be that. Well, not exactly. First off, most career criminals know in advance to ask for a lawyer as soon as they’re questioned. They do so, and that’s the end of that conversation. The police have to build a case based on evidence without the help of a confession.

Innocent people, on the other hand, when questioned by the police, “know” they don’t need a lawyer. After all, they haven’t done anything wrong, so why should they need one? The police will frequently skirt the boundaries of the laws when they find out someone is reluctant to have a lawyer and will do everything they can to encourage them not to have one. This means when they get questioned, they don’t have anyone in their corner. A lengthy questioning session could take hours and by the end the officer in charge could imply heavily that if they just sign a confession, everything will be ok and they can go home. Otherwise, they’re told solemnly, they can be held without charges for three days. The cops don’t do this because they’re bad people or because they’re looking to put innocent people away. They do it for a number of reasons, but usually it boils down to them believing they have the right person and knowing that the best way to get that person convicted, especially if they’re short on physical evidence (and often all they might have is eyewitness testimony, which is incredibly unreliable), is a confession. And those confessions, once given, are very hard to keep out of a trial.

Put yourself in the position of someone who is innocent, but being interrogated by the police. You didn’t request a lawyer, the officers seemed to think you didn’t really need one, and you’ve been having this conversation with them. The police tell you that they know you didn’t do anything wrong, but they’re trying to clear up some inconsistencies in their case, and they’re glad you’re there to help. But the questioning goes on and on, and they start hinting that they think you’re holding out on them. They’ll talk to you about what can happen to people who hold out on the police (very little, btw. Fifth Amendment and all that), and how they’d hate to see you get into any trouble. Now it’s been hours, and you’re in this small room, and you see people getting led off to cells, and it’s very late at night, and your children/spouse/parents are worried about you, and all you want to do is go home. If you had a lawyer, you’d know that you could leave at any point, but you don’t have one, and then the cops offer you an out in the form of a document. Just sign it, you’re told. It’s just a formality, and you can leave right after. They don’t expect anything to come of it, and of course they’ll look for the person who really did the crime, but you’d help them so much and then you can leave and get back to your real life and all you need to do is sign and you find yourself reaching for the pen…

And then it’s done. You’ve signed. The cops thank you. They apologize for having taken up so much of your time. Maybe they even offer to drive you back home, and give you something to eat and drink. The tension is gone, everyone is cheerful, and it sounds like everything will be ok. They thank you for your troubles and you go home, thinking all is well.

At least until the summons arrives.

Don’t think it can happen to you? Think you’re too smart? You’re not. It can. If lawyers were mandatory during police questioning, we’d cut back on instances like this, which I am sure happen far more often than we’d all like. Yes, there would be a few problems and bugs to iron out, but overall I think this is the best way of keeping the innocent out of prison and making sure the guilty still get punished.

Make lawyers mandatory. Do it to shield the innocent, and to save everyone a lot of time, money and trouble. Do it to make sure the right people get convicted. Do it for justice.

Prop 8: The Bullshit Continues

So now the supporters of California’s Proposition 8 (it overturned gay marriage), are complaining that the ruling that overturned it last year should be thrown out because the judge who made the ruling, Vaughn Walker, is gay. They are treating this as though it is something he concealed (though I could swear I knew about it last year when the ruling is made, but I can’t find any proof of it), and that he should have recused himself since he had a vested interest in the outcome of the case.

Well, ok, let’s think about this for a moment. On the surface they appear to have a legitimate complaint. He is gay and in a relationship, the case is about gay relationships, therefore he shouldn’t have been involved. Now I don’t agree with this, but that’s fine. Let’s pretend this is a valid point. So let’s assume then that the judge who would have taken up the case instead was a married straight judge.

But the problem is that wouldn’t work either. The anti-gay marriage people like to talk about how gay marriage is a “threat” to straight marriage. Therefore a straight person wouldn’t be allowed to preside over the case either, right? I mean, they’d obviously have a vested interest, too, perhaps even more so. After all, if gay marriage is a threat to straight marriage, then a married straight judge could find their marriage falling apart if gay marriage were allowed. Clearly they’d have an interest and so couldn’t be allowed to preside over the case. I’m sure the Prop 8 supporters would agree with that position, right? Right?

The real problem here is that we can’t always expect judges to step aside just because they might have a personal interest in the outcome. There’s some cases where clearly we should expect them to, like if it’s a judge who owns 20% of a company that’s appearing as a defendant in her court, or if one of the people in a case is a friend or family member of the judge. But something like sexual orientation? No. That’s like saying no black judges can preside over a civil rights case. Or that no female judges can preside over a sex discrimination case. Or that religious judges should be barred from any case where religion is an issue.

Actually that last one is kind of tempting…

But as you can see this is a very slippery slope. I’m sure the courts will throw out this complaint because they will be loathe to allow a precedent like this, and well they should be. This is not something that had a bearing on the case, and we really don’t want it to affect future court cases down the road.

Corporations as People and How to Make Them Not Be

In the United States of America, corporations are essentially considered people for legal reasons. Well, at least they are when it’s for anything good for them. Needless to say, if a corporation does something illegal, it’s not the corporation that gets sent to prison (it may get fined, but those fines are usually a joke as a percentage of what the corporation earns). This is a bad thing. Corporations are not people. I have no real problem with treating them as such when it comes to allowing them to sue/be sued, for example, but not when it comes to free speech issues and certainly not when it comes to political spending.

That last part has been the focus of much controversy in the last few years as court ruling after court ruling has given corporations more and more power over elections. They get to pour millions upon millions of dollars into the campaigns thus assuring that only candidates they want are likely to get elected. This prevents any real change to things like labor laws, banking reform and the like.

Now since the Supreme Court has constantly recognized corporations as people, and their rulings can’t be ignored and can overturn laws. This means Congress cannot pass a law saying that corporations aren’t people. But there is one way. There is one thing that the Supreme Court cannot alter but Congress can. The Constitution.

What I propose is a Constitutional Amendment. I’ll leave the exact wording to experts, but something like “Corporations are not recognized to be persons under the legal definition when it comes to campaign financing laws, etc”. This will remove a lot of the money from the political process, thus making it more fair to everyone. I’d also want something in there that says when a corporation breaks the law, the heads of said corporation will be held criminally responsible. This would mean that, for example, were BP proven to have ignored safety rules with the oil spill last year, the heads of the corporation would be able to be charged and sent to prison. Doesn’t that just send a nice warm glow through your heart?

I’m not naive enough to think this will actually happen. First it would have to make its way through the Legislature and then get approved by a whole crapload of states. This won’t occur. Too many people make money from the current system. But it would be nice if it would happen, and it can happen if Americans decide it should. We won’t, of course, especially since the corporations will simply threaten to move overseas if it happens thus ending the jobs of millions, but it’s nice to dream.