Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Congress Robbed Us of in 2011 with the Copyright Law

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke put together a list of books that would have entered the public domain this year, if not for the ridiculous copyright laws passed by Congress in 1976 and 1998. Among the works that should belong to We, the People, are such excellent works as:

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Waiting for Godot, translated by Samuel Beckett
  • Horton Hears a Who! by Doctor Seuss
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
  • The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (the 5th Narnia book)
So, this means no low-cost access to these (and tons of other) works; no Norton Critical Editions to advance scholarship, learning, and understanding; no competitive imitation; no derivative works (like translations, musical adaptations, and dramatizations); and no free e-book versions to put on your Kindle, Nook, or iPad.

Now, I am all for authors and other creative types being able to make a living off of what they do, but U.S. copyright law as it exists is a perversion of the Founding Fathers' intent for U.S. copyright protections. Copyright law, as laid down by the Founding Fathers, existed to protect temporary profits on works in order to encourage those same authors to produce more works, not to guarantee authors and their heirs 100+ years of income from a one-off hit.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution empowers the U.S. Congress "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." So, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 fails the sanity test, then, since no reasonable person should interpret the Framers' "limited Times" to mean "to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier."

By comparison, the Copyright Act of 1790 granted copyrights for 14 years, plus an additional 14 years if the author was still alive and applied for a copyright renewal. Here's how the term of copyright "protection" has grown over time:

There is no excuse for this, other than the Walt Disney Company's existential terror at the thought of losing their monopoly over Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and such characters. It's funny how, ever since Mickey was dreamt up, U.S. copyright has been repeatedly extended shortly before Mickey was to enter the public domain, eh?

So, instead of fostering the production of creative works in order to increase the collective cultural and intellectual wealth of the Republic (which was obviously the Framers' intent in the Constitution, since they subjugated the rights of "Authors and Inventors" to the "Progress of Science and useful Arts"), Congress now protects the monopoly profits of immortal corporations and authors' estates (i.e. the authors' less talented offspring) in near-perpetuity - for example, under the current law, any intellectual property created in 1923 or later will not be eligible to enter the public domain until 2019 at the earliest.

Why do We, the People, stand for this?

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