Techdirt has a write-up  on something I had never heard of–a special copyright introduced in 1996 which protects the contents of databases, even if all the works they list are public domain. The case Techdirt profiles involves a company which wanted to obtain some government records from the 1700s and 1800s and were told they could not:
“In order to justify an exclusive right to its database, the department of Vienne told the court it had “committed more than €230,000 [about $300,000] to this project and that the digitization of documents archive had taken eight years.”
This is a scary story for a number of reasons. But for me, the primary one is this disturbing course we seem to be laying, as a society, toward the monetization of every moment. It reminds me of the woman who got sued because a video she posted to YouTube of her baby son dancing to the radio included the sound of the radio (and the music playing on it) in the background; the singer of the song felt his copyright was being violated.
I respect that people should be fairly paid for their creative work, but at some point, common sense needs to kick in. These government records that took eight years to compile were paid for already by tax dollars which contributed to the operation of the government. The staff were paid a salary for their work. They were compensated for the public service they performed–and that’s what it was, a public service, the making accessible of these long-forgotten records. To then claim further rights over it is just greedy at that point.
Let me make another analogy: I am a language teacher. I get paid a salary for my work. Done, right? Now, let’s say 20 years from now, one of my students uses the language I taught him to write a best-selling book. Should I be entitled to a cut? Of course not! I did my job, I got my fair compensation, and now my ‘work,’ as it were, is out there in the world to enrich society in its own right.
It is by this same logic that I oppose eternal copyright. Creators do and should have a term where they have exclusive domain over works that they create. (I was paid my salary, as were the French database compilers; authors have their lifetime and then some to exploit their works for profit as they see fit). But then the social contract of the public domain kicks in and works revert to the benefit of public use. Your work was inspired by others, and others should be free to draw the same inspiration from yours. The Taming of the Shrew begets Ten Things I Hate About You. Wuthering Heights begets Wide Sargasso Sea. The Wizard of Oz begets Wicked. Well-loved fairy tales beget the entire Disney empire. It’s always been the way of things.
In the race to monetize every thought, idea and creative application, we are losing sight of that. We are losing sight of the higher goals our artistic system was founded on. Not every ‘right’ has to be protected. Not every ‘use’ has to be paid for. Sometimes, you’ve been paid but just don’t know you have (through taxes, for instance). Sometimes you may be paid more overtly. And other times, you’re just putting something out there into the world to put it out there. We can’t tie ourselves into knots trying to scheme and plan for every eventuality.