Techdirt is one of the more opinionated news sources I read, and while I do often agree with that opinion, sometimes it isn’t terribly well informed. Sometimes it’s even flat-out wrong. You always have to adjust for that when you read any story on the site. But that said, when it’s right, it’s pretty much right on the nose, and this is one of those times.
An article with the evocative title “Can You Really Be A Copyright Expert If You Think Copyright Should Last Forever?” looks at the director of Australian National University’s Centre of Law and Economics, Dr. George Baker, who has claimed that current copyright law is not strict enough, and that copyright should last forever.
Mike Masnick does a pretty good job rebutting Baker’s claims, via links to academic studies and an EFF Deeplinks article. Perpetual copyright simply would not make any of the original creators more creative, and it would not help future creators build on their works. And as the EFF article points out with a link to one of my favorite Axis of Awesome videos (though it might have done better to link to Rob Paravonian’s “Pachelbel Rant” instead), once you start with the idea of eternal copyright, where do you stop? Should people still be paying royalties to the estates of Pachelbel and Shakespeare? (For that matter, since nobody really knows exactly who wrote the books that make up the Bible, that would make it one of the ultimate “orphan works.”)
Spider Robinson wrote a Hugo Award-winning short story also involving music and perpetual copyright, “Melancholy Elephants” (read in single-page format via Baen), which is commonly invoked whenever the question comes up. Robinson makes the case that we need an existing body of out-of-copyright work to draw upon, because we always build on what has gone before.
We’ve covered perpetual copyright a number of times, including other times Techdirt has mentioned it. We’ve also looked at Mark Twain’s actual take on it—he has the reputation of being one of history’s great perpetual-copyright zealots, though the truth is more nuanced. In the end, I suppose we should be glad that we’re unlikely ever to have perpetual copyright—there are simply too many well-informed people out there who wouldn’t stand for it.
By the same token, however, given how many copyright maximalists are in positions of power, we’re unlikely to get any sort of copyright reform (let alone the 5-year copyright Vernor Vinge envisions in Rainbows End without bothering to explain how we could actually have gotten there in the real world). We should probably count ourselves lucky if we can get past Mickey Mouse’s next copyright renewal date without another term extension. I can hear Disney warming up its lawyers now…