Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The problem with modern copyright law


Patents and copyrights used to be on an even footing.
Inventors and artists would get equal protection from copycats by registering their works with the government.
Patents and copyrights were designed to give creators the opportunity to make money off their works for a limited period of time. After that period of exclusive rights, the works – inventions and art – would be available to everyone to distribute and improve upon.
The understanding was that governments would spend money to protect those works from illegal copying for a set period in exchange for those works eventually going into the public domain.
Cultures thrive by building on the work of others. This is as true with literature and music as it is with science and technology.
But something bad happened along the way. The system broke down, especially in the U.S.
As corporations began acquiring control over artists’ works, they began pressuring legislators to extend the length of time they could profit off those works.
Design patents last 14 years from the issue date, while utility and plant patents run 20 years. After those terms, others are free to improve upon the invention, such as drugs and computer technology.
Meanwhile, copyrights have gone from being something that allowed artists to earn a living to something that enriches some copyright holders (usually big corporations) practically forever.
Thanks to the lobbying efforts of companies like Walt Disney, the U.S. government has trashed the original intent of copyrights.
Originally, copyrights in the U.S. lasted 14 years, with the right to renew for another 14-year term if the copyright holder was still alive.
Now, for works created after Jan. 1, 1978, U.S. copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For works created for hire (such as for Disney), the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication.
The most recent copyright law – the Copyright Extension Act of 1998 – was pejoratively called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act because it prevented the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” (1928), from entering the public domain.
The act extended protection for works published before Jan. 1, 1978, by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.
“Steamboat Willie” has been close to entering the public domain four times. But each time the U.S. Congress has stepped in to extend the copyright terms. The U.S. copyright on “Steamboat Willie” will be in effect through 2023 unless there is another change of the law, according to an entry on the cartoon in Wikipedia.
Mickey Mouse and other characters also have protection under trademarks.
Technology is challenging the practicality of today’s copyright rules like never before. Computers and the Internet have given rise to a vibrant remix culture that flies in the face of copyright.
A good introduction to the problems with modern copyright law is the documentary “Rip! A Remix Manifesto” (2008).
The movie has flaws, but it makes a good case for the need to reform copyright laws. It also demonstrates how society and culture can benefit from the easing of copyright terms.

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