copyrightTechdirt has a story trending right now on the copyright extension debate. Their write-up is a fairly standard one: the US Copyright Office has finally caught on to the possible detriments of the absurdly long ‘Life+70’ copyright extension and there is talk of lowering it, or not lowering it, or who knows what.

The true gem in the story, though, comes from the comments. A poster named ‘oldgeezer’ had this analysis to offer:

Let’s do some math. I am 61 and was 12 when I first heard the Beatles. Paul McCartney is 71. Let’s assume he lives to 80. (Year 2022). Ringo is only 2 years older so likely at least one of them will be alive at least until then, very possibly much longer. Plus 70 Years (2092). My son is 28. He would have to live to 107 to legally download “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. He has no children but let’s assume if he just had a child. My grandchild may be able to if he lives to nearly 80. Say he has a child at 25. Much of the music I listened to in my early teens will not be public domain until my great grandchild would be in his mid 50’s. AND THAT’S NOT LONG ENOUGH ALREADY?!!

Food for thought…

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  1. Here’s a real-life example.

    Agatha Christie’s first book, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” was published in 1920. She died in 1976. The book is still under copyright in Britain and the European Union. Under the life+70 rule, the copyright on “Styles” won’t expire until 2046, 126 years after its publication.

  2. The thing that annoys me about this is that in the United States copyright’s justification is based on its providing a motive to produce more work. No one has yet demonstrated that the life + 70 is more effective at motivating authors than life + 50 or even the old fixed term with one extension.

  3. I think many people miss the point. When I read about people’s complaints about long copyright terms it’s always about how badly it hurts them personally. “My grandchildren will have to wait until they’re 80 before they can download this song for free. That’s so long!” Boohoo. It’s not about “you” get free stuff legally.

    Is there an economic interest in keeping the song or book or cartoon mouse under copyright? If so the then the holders will want to extend and extend and extend until their interests go away.

    How would “everyone” benefit more to deny the holders request to extend? It has to better than download for free or produce worthless fanfic. How about preserving works from obscurity or complete loss? At least that is a worthy argument.

    A compromise would be copyrights for twenty years with the option to renew for as long as the holders want to pay. Have the fees scale out with each extension.

    1st: $1000
    2nd: $10000
    3rd: $100000
    4th: $1000000

    Etc, for as long as they want to pay. Or top it a $1000000. I bet it cot Disney more than that last time.

    Only the most successful works would remain under copyright. I guess that man’s grandchildren will have to pinch their pennies and buy that song after all.

  4. Obviously protecting work from loss is an important motive — lets be honest, the vast majority of works were not worth keeping in print (or if a movie, maybe even preserving) within 20 years of their original release (And I suspect I am being very generous with that number). When a work won’t enter the public domain until after my grandchildren are two old to enjoy it, if it has been out of print for most of that time, it likely will remain out of print.

    But lets remember that copyright not only applies to books, music and movies, but to other areas as well. Computer Software, for example, is also copyrighted. Microsoft will own the copyright to DOS long after any utility can be derived from its release into the public domain (which lets remember is the stated purpose of Copyright in the U.S. Constitution).

    Lets also remember that not all derivative works are simply fan-fiction. How much art is derivative? How many Disney classics would be gone? How many classic Operas and Ballets (Which often are based on pre-existing stories) would never have existed in a world of perpetual copyright? How many serious artists have been harmed because one of their works was seen as derivative of an earlier work, even when the works are very distinct. Yes, the vast majority of derivative work is horrible… but lets remember that the vast majority of any art is horrible, but we are infinitely richer because of the small fraction that is not horrible.

  5. To me, the social contract of the public domain is a principle as worthy of protection as the author’s right to profit. All creative works draw, overtly and subconsciously, from works which came before. The price for being allowed as a creator to benefit from the work of others is that eventually, others should be allowed to draw from yours. It’s not about whether somebody’s great-grandson can afford the download fee or not. It’s about whether that grandson has that common pool of culture to freely draw on just as the Beatles did when they wrote their stuff.

  6. If the work is still generating substantial revenue for its owners, let the owners pay to extend the copyright. Make it a higher payment the longer it goes, so sooner or later it’ll be more money than it’s worth and they’ll let it go.

  7. I don’t see how copyright could adversely prevent creators from drawing upon previous works. For example, Dorothy Richardson pioneered the stream of consciousness style that influenced James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing gave many a schoolboy different ideas on how to use a musical instrument. Buffy the Vampire Slayer spawned countless imitations. All without copyright violations. That’s creators using the cultural heritage before them. What they can’t do is write Harry Potter vs. the Daleks. But they could write about a boy wizard fighting alien robots with bad voices.

    MarylandBill has an important point that copyright is not just about creative works.

  8. All this talk about derivative works in relation to copyright is nonsense.

    Ideas can’t be copyrighted. That means you can write a book about an angst-driven teenaged werewolf and vampire, and the girl who loves them, and, as long as you don’t call them Belle, Edward, and Jacob, make them sparkly, or copy any of the text, you are safe.

    Any book can be used as inspiration for another, and that’s not against copyright.

    The main value to using known works is the marketing aspect. A mystery about a Victorian private detective will sell far fewer copies than a mystery starring Sherlock Holmes because Sherlock is a marketing hook.

  9. These arguments will not get you anywhere with the intellectual property absolutists who believe that their work is equivalent to physical property and should never go to public domain, ever.

  10. I think the spam filter ate my last message. The short version: even works under copyright can increase the cultural heritage for creators to draw inspiration from – with or without public domain.

  11. Greg M- you don’t see how it would stop them? Allow me to oblige with an example fresh from today’s news feed:

    Basically, even if it IS fair use, the only way to defend it is with a lawsuit. In this case, the guy involved was willing to fight it. But the theatre running his show was not. So the show—inspired by The Princess Bride but not a rip-off by any means—got scuttled. It is a broken system. Longer copyright terms will only make it more broken.

  12. @Joanna. There are lots of big fans of booksmoviestvwhatnot who seem to go overboard with enthusiasm. As long as the fandom is private and not for public, there is rarely a problem. Some creators have different levels of tolerance for these types of “creativity” and it’s going to up to them whether shows like My Princess Bride can go on or not. Saying no is not stomping out any kind of meaningful creativity.

    And nothing is stoping him from doing a different show. He just can’t quote and enact excessively with other peoples material. I don’t feel sad or at a loss that that show was shut down. If he has talent, he can do something else.

  13. Re the spam filter, yes, it has been particularly paranoid lately. Not a problem for me in that I write comments in order to think through something for my own edification. That someone else might find it interesting is a bonus.
    Re the subject at hand, copyright duration, I think that we have to leaven the discussion with the fact that authors typically assign the copyright to a publisher who then acts with an entirely different set of motives. Publishers who hold copyrights want longer terms just in case it suits them financially to let people read. Failing that, they area just as happy to deny access in case something resurrects interest. The reader be damned.

    • @Frank, it’s not paranoia when they spammers really are out to get it. Spam has been pretty bad lately. Not bad enough that I can’t scan through them all, but bad enough that I have to scan through quickly. I think I’m finding everything, but it’s possible some real stuff is slipping by me. I’ve been collecting some particularly humorous examples for a future post.

  14. Frank, in most cases, the publisher’s license to print the paper version includes a get-out-of-contract clause for both parties if the book goes out of print or less than a certain number of books is sold.

    Ebook contracts may or may not have a time limit. Most don’t so as long as the digital book is available the contract is valid.

    In both formats, the publisher will sell the book to any reader who wants it so the reader is never damned.

    • @Marilynn, I know from past comments that you read Rusch’s blog. She sites plenty of examples where books did go out of print (so that readers could not buy them) while the publishers were able to make the claim that they books were still in print so they could retain the rights. So yes, the readers can be damned.

  15. Greg, I think it is a slippery slope to go down when you start judging the merits of a specific work before deciding if it’s worthy of protection. I think that in any situation where two sides have an interest, those interests must be balanced with a compromise. So consumers and content creators have to accept that for a fixed tem of copyright, they do have to pay to play. But once that fixed term is done, the work should be free for whatever uses, whether Greg M approves of these uses or not :-) the reason consumers and content creators do have this stake is that when copyright was first set up it was based on the social contract of prior works enriching the creators who make new ones. And just as they got enriched, they need to make their works available for enriching others once the fair term of copyright is done.

  16. Juli, that’s where used paper books come into play. Heck, even copies of my trade paperback novels from small presses are available used so, if you can’t find any books from an author you like, you aren’t trying very hard.

  17. Joanna, I’m trying not be judgmental about merits of a work. The same restrictions would apply to a show called My Thomas Pynchon where some who reenacted sences from Gravity’s Rainbow could get shut down. Or the person (not Salinger) who wrote a sequel to Catcher the Rye was not allowed to publish.

    Why is it so hard not to reuse other peoples words and characters? As someone said already, ideas can’t be copyrighted, you just need your own slant. Is that so restrictive?

  18. @Marilynn

    You said “The mistake the man made about the PRINCESS BRIDE is that he used it to make money. If he’d just uploaded it to the Internet, he’d have been fine.

    Fanfic and fan media is for love, not money.”

    Where in the Copyright Law does it say, “it is ok to copy things as long as you are not trying to make money”? That is what DCMA take downs on You Tube are all about.

    Violations of Copyright are violations. As was pointed out earlier by Joanna you need to argue (and pay lawyers) that you have the right of fair use of a work after the fact that someone tells you that it has to come down/cannot appear.

    You cannot walk into the library and use the photocopier to make a copy of that magazine even if you do not want to sell it to someone else.

  19. BOB, from a legal point of view, fanfic and fan media are against copyright, but many creators don’t go after those who make fan works as long as that work isn’t for profit.

    It is up for the creator and the publisher/film company/etc. whether or not to go after those who create the fanfic or fan media. For more details, here’s an article.

    I was referring to those creators who don’t have a problem with fanfic or fan media.

    GregM, it is hard to reuse others’ characters because those characters and worlds belong to that author.

    Nothing prevents a fan writer, however, from changing their creation enough so that it is their work, not a derivative work. EL James did that with her TWILIGHT fanfic, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. I have also read Klingons inspired futuristic romance, and a CAPTAIN BLOOD inspired historical romance.

    Noncreative types think that it’s hard to be creative so others should be allowed to borrow and reuse from published authors, but the reality is that ideas are a dime a dozen for those of us who create. The only problem is that we never have enough time to use all those ideas.

    The primary value of using characters and the world of established works in for-profit fiction/media is the marketing angle I mentioned earlier.

    For more details on these ideas, you can read my article here:

  20. Marilynn, I asked why is hard NOT to reuse other peoples characters. Or why is there this need to create stories with someone else’s creations? Other than the marketing advantage, of course.

    Yet some people are able to reuse others work successfully and legally. Tim Supple wrote a play based on Midnight’s Children — but he had Salmon Rushdie’s permission. Personally I’d rather reread the book than watch the play, but that is just me.

    Of course, a no name isn’t likely to get permission from Rowling and the BBC to publish Harry Potter Conquers the Daleks. But is that really a reason to do away with copyright?

  21. Greg, nobody here is saying we should ‘do away’ with it. Just that it should only be enforced for a reasonable term. There is evidence, cited in the story I quote, that countries which have implemented Life Plus 70 have been sorry, that it has kept orphan works out of the hands of customers who might have paid if only someone had been in charge, that it has had no economic advantages for anyone other than the heirs of Walt Disney. So why have it? Why isn’t Life Plus 50 enough?

  22. Joanna, protecting orphan works from loss is essentially what I said when suggested limiting copyright to 20 years with options to renew for a fee. There are, for example, obscure pulp magazines that could be reprinted which might otherwise be lost. Saying that copyright harms creativity by limiting rights to perform My Princess Bride isn’t really helpful to the issue. The book and movie will be a round a long long time for anybody to enjoy or ignore.

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