Tuesday, May 06, 2014


I've often argued in favor of limiting copyright and restoring the public domain. And if you haven't yet read Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson, go read it now. I feel that copyright terms without limit do more damage in the long run to artists and creators than short terms will do. I've even written a column in the paper to propose limits in order to strengthen copyright.

Now the business case has been made, according to Boing Boing:

You'll remember Derek Khanna as the Republican House staffer who got fired for writing a paper that used careful objective research to argue for scaling back copyright. Now, Khanna is a volunteer fellow at R Street, where he's expanded on his early work with a paper called Guarding Against Abuse: Restoring Constitutional Copyright [PDF], which tackles the question of copyright terms from a market-economics approach, citing everyone from Hayek to Posner to the American Conservative Union.
I don't expect, or want, copyright to go away, but there's an example in the paper that ought to bring home the damage that current obscenely long copyright terms cause:
Excessively long copyright terms help explain why Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech is rarely shown on television, and specifically why it is almost never shown in its entirety in any other form. In 1999, CBS was sued for using portions of the speech in a documentary. It lost on appeal before the 11th Circuit. If copyright terms were shorter than 50 years, then those clips would be available for anyone to show on television, in a documentary or to students.

When historical clips are in the public domain, learning flourishes. Martin Luther King did not need the promise of copyright protection for "life+70" to motivate him to write the "I Have a Dream" speech. (Among other reasons, because the term length was much shorter at the time.) He wrote the speech because of the March on Washington and because he hoped to inspire Congress to pass civil rights legislation. He gave the speech for political reasons and for historical value. He wanted it to be quoted and to inspire future generations – and he clearly succeeded.

Yet today, generations of schoolchildren are denied the ability to watch this speech, a clear abuse of the intent for copyright to promote "the progress of science and the useful arts." Further, King's speech itself built upon other works, referencing the Bible, the Gettysburg Address, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and William Shakespeare. The speech would not exist, at least not in any form that would be recognizable to us, without the ability to build on the works of others. Generations of these historical artifacts now lay fallow behind locked vaults of copyright.
When you cannot even listen to the words of a famous speech, or use them in a documentary to talk about historical events, something is SERIOUSLY wrong with copyright.

The paper continues with other unexpected costs of copyright, including all kinds of works that are based on other works and how difficult it is to even report on the history of works that are in copyright thanks to the ridiculous terms. Then it offers reasonable copyright terms based on studies:
Khanna recommends new copyright policy based on a House Republican Study Committee proposal in 2012. Under this proposal, there would be a free 12-year copyright term for all new works. Following that, there could be an elective 12-year renewal, at a cost of 1 percent of all U.S. revenue from the first 12 years. There would then be two elective 6-year renewals, at a cost of 3 percent and 5 percent of revenue, respectively. There is one final elective 10-year renewal period at a cost of 10 percent of all overall revenue, minus fees paid for the previous renewals. This proposal would terminate all copyright protection after 46 years.
I'm for that. I think a 46-year limit, with costs to renew in there to help maintain the system, is far more reasonable than an effectively eternal copyright. Now we just have to get more people to recognize why these incredibly long copyright terms are a bad idea. I want to protect authors, limiting copyright to its original form is one way to do that.