To Kill A Mockingbird is a fine example of how copyright is failing us all

I read this recent piece on how Harper Lee has finally allowed an e-book edition of her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, to be produced. Of course, in the absence of an authorised e-book that readers can pay for, there are plenty of unauthorised ones — it’s trivial to find on any torrent site. My eye was caught by a comment on the article, discussing the existence of these pirate e-books:

This is sad, but doesn’t surprise me. Its the reality of the world we live in today. I suspect the biggest purchasers of this e-book will be over the age of 40 – those under don’t tend to realise the purpose or value of copyright.

That is exactly wrong.

Because the purpose of copyright is not to reward authors (or, more often these days, copyright holders who are not authors but acquirers). It’s to benefit society. The principles underlying copyright laws in different countries are much the same, but the copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution spells it out nicely:

[Congress is empowered] 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.

I’m sure you follow: giving authors exclusive rights to their creations is not the purpose of copyright; it’s the mechanism. The purpose is to promote the progress of science and art.

LilSnappers_Rolls

In effect, society says to creative people: “We want you to create useful and interesting work. Because we want society to get the benefit of that work, we’ll offer you a financial incentive to create it, by giving up a portion of the work’s value for a limited time. By allowing you alone to exploit it, we hope that the total value generated for society will exceed the value lost.”

And of course that’s gone terribly wrong. One reason for this is that copyright terms grow ever longer — in the US, works are now protected until 70 years after the death of the author — so that the value realised by society is reduced for typically a century or so. The “for a limited time” clause is effectively ignored.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Under the earliest US copyright law, which had a term of 14 years, it would have gone into the public domain in 1974 unless Lee took steps to renew that copyright for another 14 years — something she would have been able to do just once. That would have allowed it to stay in copyright until 1988. In other words, even had its copyright been renewed, To Kill a Mockingbird would now have been in the public domain for more than a quarter of a century.

Instead, it’s remained in copyright (and will remain so for at least another 70 years). So royalties have continued to flow. It’s perhaps largely for this reason that Harper Lee never got around to completing another book — Mockingbird became her meal-ticket for life. In short, in this case copyright law did the exact opposite of what it was intended for: it removed the incentive to create more works.

The answer of course is a return to much shorter copyright terms. While copyright holders continue to screw everyone, all the time, huge swathes of the population will continue to hold copyright in contempt. The only way to save it is to wind it back to what it was intended to be.

 

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30 responses to “To Kill A Mockingbird is a fine example of how copyright is failing us all

  1. Andrew Dalke

    There is no justification for the line “It’s perhaps largely for this reason that Harper Lee never got around to completing another book — Mockingbird became her meal-ticket for life.” In fact, we have a good idea of her reasons, and they contradict your belief. I’ll quote from the Wikipedia article on her:

    > Butts also shared that Lee told him why she never wrote again, “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

    In any case, it sounds like you want artists to have a maximum amount of money they can make from a copyright monopoly, in order that they create more. That is, even limited to 28 years of copyright, the royalties from the book and film, would have been enough to tide Lee over for life, without doing any other work. Since you want her to publish more, at least past 1990, the only way to achieve your goal that would be to restrict the total amount of income she could make from copyright, yes?

    If so, how much should we take from J.K. Rowling to encourage her write more novels, so she doesn’t just sit around living off her Harry Patter meal-ticket? After all, she’s only written three novels in the last few years.

    Fundamentally, while I agree that copyright is too long, I don’t like the economic analysis you did, ending “we hope that the total value generated for society will exceed the value lost.” People create even when there is no need for economic gain, as Rowling demonstrates. At best the benefit to society can only be judged across the population of all authors – which copyright law says is everyone. Some will benefit society, others won’t. You seem to imply that the work of each author must benefit society.

  2. Butts also shared that Lee told him why she never wrote again, “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money.

    That’s easy to say for someone who has plenty enough money. It’s not at all clear that she wouldn’t have written another book had there been a financial reason to.

    It sounds like you want artists to have a maximum amount of money they can make from a copyright monopoly, in order that they create more.

    It’s not just what I want — it’s what the US Constitution explicitly says the law exists for. (To be pedantic, the thing to be limited is the amount of time that the work is removed from the public domain, not the amount of money the author or other copyright holder can make in that time.)

    I think the rest of your comment is meant facetiously; if not, then I trust that the parenthetical explanation above makes clear the misunderstanding.

  3. Mike, I agree with Andrew Dalke. There’s nothing “facetious” about his comments. Under the Constitution, Congress is empowered “[t] o 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.”

    The people, through their representatives (Congress) express their choices. That includes just how long that “limited Time” should be. Nothing restricts Congress from setting that time, then later changing its mind and shortening or lengthening it.

    You’re just unhappy with the product of a democratic process. You think life plus 70 years is too long. Fine. Write your Congressman.

    Instead, you resort to a simplistic, somewhat socialistic bent (curtail the author’s revenue stream so she’ll produce more while the rest of us benefit from getting free copies of her book). You then pretend that the Founders somehow never intended a long term of protection, lest “huge swatches of the population . . . hold copyright in contempt.”

    In fact, the Founders were deliberately circumspect on “Times.” So when you insist that “the only way to save it [The Copyright Clause] is to wind it back to what it was intended to be,” you simply blow smoke because, again, the Founders never expressed what that length of time was “intended to be.” Instead, you simply imagine that they meant a short term because that fits your personal politics (shorten private revenue streams, “spread the wealth”).

  4. My idea for copyright reform it this. Go back to 14 year terms. Allow one upon creation with the ability to request another 14 year term after. Then after that term is up allow for the ability to renew the term every 14 years but charge for each term. Have the cost go up every additional term. This would mean that there is a potential for perpetual copyright, if you have enough money and its worth it for you.

    Therefore Disney could get what they want and keep Steamboat Willie under copyright forever because they have the money to pay for it, but works that are no longer making enough to be economically feasible to sell, would enter the public domain (many much much earlier than is happening now).

    I know its not ideal, but my biggest fear is that we are loosing so much of our culture as works that aren’t hugely popular fade away and the law forces us all to do NOTHING about it. We need a way to sift through the vast amount of culture created by our artists and use that work to create new stuff. Just this week I saw a mashup of “Staying Alive” and “Back in Black” that was awesome. This song is totally unsalable by its creator, requiring the permission of both the Bee Gee’s record company and AC/DC’s record company as its a transformative work and not eligible for a mechanical license. Basically its black market art at this point unless it gets that approval. Under original US terms for copyright BOTH songs would have been in the public domain even with an extension. I’m not certain if my plan of pay for extensions would have encouraged their entry into the public domain or not, but forcing the record companies to pony up 1-2 million dollars to get the extension would at least make them think of whether locking the songs up for longer or not and songs that aren’t huge hits would definitely enter the public domain where new artists might transform them into the next big thing.

    That’s my idea. Its very unlikely to happen, but it would still be more than fair to copyright holders. Which is why I will continue to, quite often, treat copyright as an unjust law.

    Oh, and I also love how our laws are ex-post-facto except for copyright. Works should always be covered under the copyright laws in place at the time of their creation, these retroactive extensions are perverse government corruption and I reiterate, unjust.

  5. Jason, your idea seems like a good one: let the corporations who buy the legislation have what they want, but in a way that doesn’t poison the rest of the public domain as collateral damage.

    James, if you think a life-plus-70 copyright term is the result of a democratic process, you’re simply deluded.

  6. I suspect the biggest purchasers of this e-book will be over the age of 40 – those under don’t tend to realise the purpose or value of copyright.

    Actually, people under 40 won’t buy it because they couldn’t care less about literary fiction, and are especially mistrustful of overhyped works like that. Which is potentially unjust, but seriously, we of Generation Y and later want our fiction to speak to us. And too much literature from the mid-20th century simply doesn’t.

    Rest assure that we do buy (e-)books. Not because the law says so, or because the authors “deserve” anything, but because we genuinely want to reward them and support them. And for that the book must be available in the format we want in the first place. Oh, right. Did I mention we’re discerning buyers, too?

  7. I wonder whether the under-40s would be more likely to be interested in literary fiction if they could dip into it the way they do with various forms of music.

  8. re-quoting your quote:
    “[Congress is empowered] 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.”

    Well, if you ask me, the perversion of the aim is the bloated “middle-man”. Generally, the creator’s path to monies is by either licensing for a limited time or by re-assigning permanently some of or all of their copyright to a 3rd party–i.e. a company of some kind.

    From that point on, provided the work in question remains in any way popular or well-known, it is then in that company’s (possibly short-sighted) best interests to use any and all means necessary (like buying congress critters) to ensure that the copyright stays in effect for as long as possible. Ideally (from their perspective) copyright would never end.

    I’ve been philosophizing on copyright pretty much a lot ever since the halcyon days of rampant college mp3 file sharing and Napster. As with most or all such New tech meets Old Ways debates it’s complicated. As such, H.L. Mencken’s quote (here slightly modified to the variation my mind remembers more easily) applies: For any complex problem there is an answer that is simple, obvious, and wrong.

    Except maybe not. I mean–if we want to *completely* “fix” the problems, then I’ve got nothing. I cannot think of any simple solution that is not also wrong.

    However, if we’re willing to accept a partial solution as “good enough”, then I think a really great idea would be: not allowing copyright to extend nearly so far after the original creator’s death. Like maybe just 5 – 10 years at most with no possible extensions under any circumstances.

    But even here, I see big problems with almost any creative endeavor with more than one person involved. What about a book with two authors? What about a song with multiple writers and multiple performers? What about any TV show or commercial movie?

    Being you’re British and a major Doctor Who fan, you’re surely aware of the longstanding copyright mess involving the daleks? (It seems so fitting that the pepper pots would cause a lot of grief in that way.) From googling, I see the BBC apparently “won” the rights finally and forever in 2008.

    —————

    Copyright… it’s a mess… And yet, if there were no such thing as copyright at all, then most assuredly what would happen is: companies would still own everything and viciously sue anyone using something that the company claimed as its own without permission. It’s just, in a non-copyright world, the company would not first have to buy the right to claim something as its own from the original creator first. Instead, if the company saw something that was starting to become popular, the company would just claim it as its own, and that would be that.

    As usual, my apologies for rambling without much of a coherent overall point. :-)


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  9. RE: “James, if you think a life-plus-70 copyright term is the result of a democratic process, you’re simply deluded.”

    You’re resorting to convolution. You’re injecting an irrelevancy into the debate to obscure the flaw in your argument. You pitched this column as an explanation of Constitutional law — what the Founders “really” meant (a short time period for exclusive copyright) when they crafted what we’ll call the Copyright Clause.

    I called you out on that. In fact, you now don’t deny that the Founders left the “Time” term undefined, thus enabling the people, through their representatives (Congress) to set the time and later change their mind from time to time as society evolved. You also don’t deny what I pointed out — that you simply inserted your short-time frame political preference into your IMAGINED belief as to what the Founders meant when they crafted the Copyright Clause. Indeed, you cited no evidence as to what the Founders intended.

    You also don’t deny that the democratic process figures into changes to copyright protection time frames. You just don’t like the way that process has gone down.

    I might join you in the belief that the democratic process itself has been corrupted by plutocrats, crony capitalists (sure, the Koch brothers, etc.). I might even express my belief that the latest statutory time limit was purchased by rich people (Disney lobbyists, etc.) and is truly not what Americans would have wanted had their preferences been honored.

    But that doesn’t detract from the fact that your “constitutional analysis” is simply unfounded, that you’re simply masquerading your political opinion under it, and that you’ve resorted to convolution here.

    And what is your political opinion? You don’t like long copyright terms, rich authors and corporations ought not to cop that much of a benefit, and allowing that to continue degrades respect for copyright law (an opinion that just so happens to enable copyright pirates to rationalize their moral and legal transgressions). There’s much to be said in support of that. But again, this is NOT a serious discussion about how our Constitution’s Copyright Clause should be interpreted.

  10. “It’s not at all clear that she wouldn’t have written another book had there been a financial reason to.”
    Mike, I have to say that’s a very bizarre perspective to look at it from. It’s kind of like saying “you will write another masterpiece when you are hungry.”
    Tony Wilson always told the story of when he first saw Joy Division, at some minor battle of the bands competition, and feeling that while the other bands might have wanted to be there, they were the only band that had to. It wasn’t a wish to have cheering crowds or to give up the day job. It was more like a compulsion.
    I think Lee wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ out of a similar compulsion. Of course, she might have been forced to write other books through harder financial circumstances. Equally, we could force her to write another book by holding a gun to her head. But what are the chances that those circumstances would produce another book as good as ‘Mockingbird’? How many authors write one or a few good books, then a whole pile of pot-boilers just to keep the cheques coming in? A whole bunch of ‘What Scout Did Next’ novels would do nothing for ‘Mockingbird’ss reputation. I wouldn’t want to read them and neither would you.
    True, there’s no control experiment, so she may have been entirely wrong in her estimation she’d written everything she had to. Kafka wanted all his works burnt, and we can only read them now because others broke with his wishes. But in the absence of anything better I’m tempted to go with the author’s own judgement.
    Personally my feeling is that the argument that both copyright and patents benefit society is undermined by the realisations that human developments are cumulative, and that the motivation to innovate is not always financially driven. I don’t imagine Lee wrote ‘Mockingbird’ as a pension plan in the first place.
    Some might argue that the drive for an author to write is not the same as the drive of the designer to innovate. But there’s plenty of counter-examples. We use the web every day in the way we do precisely because Tim Berners-Lee chose not to patent his innovations. When Nils Bohlin invented the modern three-point seatbelt he also chose not to patent it, so that all car manufacturers would be able to install them without paying a fee – thereby saving lives.
    James, I am struggling to understand what point you are making and not getting very far. When you say “the democratic process itself has been corrupted by plutocrats… the latest statutory time limit was purchased by rich people (Disney lobbyists, etc.)” you are of course entirely correct. But then where does that leave your earlier comment? (“You’re just unhappy with the product of a democratic process. You think life plus 70 years is too long. Fine. Write your Congressman.”) The only point that really leaves you with is that the laws are the way they are because that is the way they were passed. Which is less a point than a tautology.
    It also amuses me that you consider Mike’s argument to be of a “somewhat socialistic bent”. You are aware that many on the free market right decry copyright as “rent”, an interference with the market? Their positions range from severely limiting it to doing away with it altogether. In fact, with the argument Mike is presenting here (if not his general politics) I would say it fits in much more closely with this critique of rent.

  11. Thanks for writing this! I was one of the people who did not realize the true purpose of copyright. I, for some reason, knew that patents were created to ensure that inventions went into the public domain, but it never occurred to me that copyright was the same way, probably because of the greedy ways people have abused it.

  12. wyrdwyrd suggests:

    I think a really great idea would be: not allowing copyright to extend nearly so far after the original creator’s death. Like maybe just 5 – 10 years at most with no possible extensions under any circumstances.

    Surely on the basis the copyright exists to encourage creative work, there can be no justification for terms extending any length of time past the death of the creator? You can’t incentivise a dead creator.

    Also: I don’t like copyright terms based on creator death, because I’m not comfortable with wanting someone to die so their works fall into the public domain.

    So I strongly prefer a simple fixed term of some realistic length. Ten years would be good, twenty would be supportable.

  13. James, you seem to be just asserting the same things repeatedly. It’s uncontroversial that copyright terms have been repeatedly extended on the say-so of corporations that have bought the legislation: most famously, Disney repeatedly having the term extended when early Mickey Mouse cartoons were in danger of falling into the public domain; more perniciously, MPAA president Jack Valenti’s attempt to make an end-run around the constitution’s “for a limited time” wording by a “proposal for term to last forever less one day“.

    I think you would find it extremely difficult to find a serious argument that copyright as it currently stands benefits society as a whole. It’s for the benefit of corporations, contra what’s said about it in the constitution.

    At this point it’s not clear the world as a whole wouldn’t be better off if all copyright were abolished. In fact, it seems that’s exactly what’s happening — it’s just that it’s a de facto process facilitated by technology rather than a de jure one codified by courts.

  14. Gavin, of course we can’t know what Harper Lee would have done had the cushion of continuing Mockingbird royalties not insulated her from the financial need to write more. All we know for sure is that she wouldn’t have written less. had she written more, what would it have been? Surely not What Scout Did Next, but some completely different story — perhaps to do with race issues in the South, perhaps not. I prefer a world where we could read those other books and make up our own minds about their merit.

    Here’s a similar but different case: Bill Watterson started publishing Calvin and Hobbes (which I consider the single greatest comic strip I’ve ever seen) in 1985 and finished in 1995. With a fourteen-year copyright term, it would all now be in the public domain; even with a fourteen-year extension, the first year would now be in the public domain. Now I commend Watterson’s decision to quit when he did — before C&H fell into a repeating cycle and started diminishing the value of its own legacy. But, oh, how I wish we could have seen what he did next. As it is, what he did next was: nothing. Now probably he’s made enough from C&H that even if the royalties stopped today he’d never have to work again; but wouldn’t it be fine if he showed us something new?

  15. David Starner

    My problem with the arts and current copyright is that every major book published before 1923 is available for free on Google Books for US readers (as all of them are PD in the US without checking author death dates.) On the other hand, works published after that point are a lot more hit and miss. It’s actually more likely for a book published in 1890 to be available in a new printed copy then a book published in 1990.

    I’ve got a photocopy of a JOVIAL manual that was probably less then legal. If you’re a stickler for that, Amazon.com can offer you manuals for that obsolete historical language starting at $100; last time I checked, there was no detailed page on the net for it.

  16. @Mike Taylor
    you wrote “So I strongly prefer a simple fixed term of some realistic length. Ten years would be good, twenty would be supportable.”

    Presumably, you would suggest the same time frame for collaborative works? This is important because *most* commercial works are *highly* collaborative. In fact, novels, *some* songs, and the occasional one-off short film are much more the solo exception than the rule.

    How would you handle re-assingment of rights? Would that remain mostly unchanged? I.e., would it be that rights could still be sold to corporations, but that any and all those rights would end after a fixed term?


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  17. First, let me note that I’m talking off the top of my head here. I know that copyright is broken. It doesn’t follow that I know how to fix it, so what follows is “best guess”.

    Part of the appeal of a simple fixed term is that it means collaborative works behave just the same as solo ones: embargoed for ten years (or however long) after initial publication, then in the public domain — irrespective of how many people are involved or how long they live.

    On re-assignment of rights … it occurred to me only to day to wonder, as a thought experiment, how things would be different if copyright could not be reassigned, and always belonged only to the creator. Publishers would in fact not be seriously inconvenienced: they don’t need novelists’ copyright, so there’s no obvious reason why they’d need anyone else’s. It seems to me that this would be a win for society: if corporations owned only what they’d created themselves, they’d have less incentive to screw up the system in support of their own ability to keep collecting rent.

  18. @Mike:

    I may not have made it clear. I’m not so much talking about novels or other books be they collaborative or otherwise.

    I’m talking about almost everything else. A couple simple examples: IIRC, Neil Gaiman and some other person came up with the idea for “Death” while they were sitting at a restaurant, loosely inspired by the look of a waitress.

    If rights are not re-assignable, then how can anyone except Neil draw the Death character? And Neil isn’t even an artist.

    If anyone draws the character *with Neil’s permission*, then (IANAL, but) that’s *got* to be an at least temporary re-assignment of rights.

    It gets really bad when you talk of TV shows and movies. Tons of people involved in the project. In the current world, it’s no big deal because we all know who has the copyright on, for example, Superman or Spider-Man or (the one that always bugs me and copyright reform proponents everywhere) Micky Mouse.

    In a world with no re-assignable copyright, where would Doctor Who be? How can anyone write the lines if the person that dreamed up the character cannot assign someone else permission to write the lines? To portray the role on-screen? To allow a company to make a lunch box with the likeness? etc etc etc.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  19. Andrew Dalke

    There are at least three problems with your economic model as it applies to Lee. First, you assume that she had or has the capacity to make additional copyrightable material that would be able to provide an income stream. Let’s assume that’s though that she could.

    Second, you suppose that a 28 year copyright monopoly wasn’t enough for her to have become independently wealthy, but you don’t have any evidence that her royalties from the book and film were not enough to provide a sufficient income for the rest of her life. That is, even with a much shorter copyright period, TKAM could still have been “her meal-ticket.” As a demonstration that this can happen, which I pointed out earlier, Rawling is one of the richest people in the world, as a result of the Harry Potter series. She would still be worth well over $100 million even with a 14 year copyright monopoly, and there is no economic reason for Rawling to ever publish again.

    Another example would be H. F. Saint, who received $2.5 million in motion picture and book-club rights, and $600,000 for paperback rights, all within about 6 years of his 1987 book “Memoirs of an Invisible Man”. While he had thought to write more, he ended up moving to the south of France, and not working more.

    It’s reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Lee was independently wealthy within 28 years of publication.

    Third, even if she had an economic need, you haven’t demonstrated that there were other jobs she would have done instead of writing. Her first job in New York, for example, was as an airline reservations clerk. She could certainly have found a academic position in an English department, despite not publishing new novels. After all, the evidence suggests that she would do almost anything else rather than submit herself to the sort of publicity she would get for writing another novel, so it’s much more reasonable to assume she would have chosen some other occupation.

    Thus your supposition – that she didn’t write additional novels in large part because the current lengthy copyright scheme gave her an income stream for life, and that a shorter copyright scheme would have induced her to write more – is without basis, and almost certainly incorrect.

  20. The Problem is not copyrights; the Problem is Congress. Don’t bother with the former until the latter is fixed.

  21. RE: James, you seem to be just asserting the same things repeatedly…

    Mike, you’re dodging me again. Your opening pitch was that The Constitution discouraged long copyright terms for various reasons. You literally quote it and then conclude that, because “copyright terms grow ever longer,” the “for a limited time” clause is effectively ignored.

    You thus stand on the Constitution — specifically, its “for a limited time” clause — in arguing that its purpose is being defeated.

    Yet, you ignore the fact that the Founders deliberately left the term “limited” undefined, and instead deferred to the people, through their representatives (Congress) to define that via statutes. You then pretend that the Founders “must have” meant a length of time far shorter than what Congress has decided.

    Of course, you have no evidence for that.

    THAT is my criticism of your editorial — that you’re simply blowing smoke when you insist that the Founders simply “must have” meant no more than X number of years for copyright terms.

    Rather than concede or rebut that, you dismiss my point as “repetitious,” then launch back into your complaint about what Congress has done (enacted an overlong Copyright term).

    The two concepts (the Constitution’s meaning and Congressional action) as different as lightning and a lightning bug. You’ve sloppily blurred that here.

    Why am I being such a stickler about this? You know why. Because in modern debates we get into too much “Tea-Trouble” when people get loose-and-goofy in insisting that the Constitution means this or that. Claiming “the Constitution” requires that packs far more legal and persuasive force than citing a statute. Hence, clear, textually grounded Constitutional debate requires precision and care.

    You’ve not exercised that here. It advances rational debate to stick with facts, not smoke.

  22. David Starner

    The Constitution states a clear motive for why copyright should exist. Given that the first copyright law was 28 years, and the length of the current copyright law doesn’t seem to advance the motive the Constitution states, I think it pretty clear that the Founders would not have been happy with current copyright lengths.

  23. wyrdwyrd writes:

    If anyone draws the character *with Neil’s permission*, then (IANAL, but) that’s *got* to be an at least temporary re-assignment of rights.

    Ah, I think we’re at cross-purposes here. What you’re describing here is not what I would mean by “reassignment of rights”, but mere “permission” — and of course I’m not suggesting that there should be no legal way to give permission! What I’m putting on the table is more along the lines that the creator be the only one with authority to give that permission — that the right to give permission (or sell it) should not be transferable.

    Again: I’ve not thought this through, the idea might have horrible consequences that I’ve not spotted. But let’s at least be sure we’re all critiquing the same maybe-flawed idea :-)

  24. Andrew: you’re right that any number of holes can be picked in Lee’s specific case. I picked it as a jumping off point for discussion rather than because I’m convinced that she in particular would have written more novels had the copyright term been shorter. Maybe she would, maybe she wouldn’t. But what does seem clear to me is that the current very long terms have a general tendency to discourage the creation of new work rather than, as intended, encourage it.

    Colin: I don’t necessarily disagree with your contention. My difficulty with it is that “The Problem is not X; the Problem is Congress. Don’t bother with the former until the latter is fixed” is true for any value of x (drugs, guns, education, health) — and we simply can’t stop trying to get change in all these areas until such time as Congress (or in my case Parliament) is perfect. Our elected bodies are blunt instruments; still, we have to use them as best we can, not just write them off.

  25. James, my argument is perfectly clear. The constitution says that copyright exists to advance the arts and sciences (i.e. the the benefit of society as a whole rather than for the benefit of copyright holders). Copyright is therefore a bargain. Society allows holders a monopoly on exploitation of creative works for one reason only: to encourage the creation of more works.

    It’s for that reason that “a limited time” is indicated: because the purpose of copyright is to release more work to society, not to tie it up indefinitely. These principles were laid down in 1789 in the constitution: the first US copyright act was enacted the very next year, and specified that “limited time” as 14 years.

    The fact that Congress has subsequently been hijacked by special-interest copyright-industry lobbyists is a cause for mourning, and has resulted in a greatly impoverished culture. Instead, you seem to regard that hijacking as ipso facto proof that our present laws represent both the intention of the constitution and the will of the people. In fact they represent neither, and deeply contradict both.

  26. I’m not calling for perfect legislative bodies. Attempts to fix, say, copyrights will be essentially futile and largely a waste of effort. For any term limits you lobby them to enact will be squashed by the far deeper pockets of Mickey Mouse. It would be like a recurring wave of a tsunami of repeating term extensions. Sure, one solution is to make barriers against the tsunami but I’m saying it’s far easier to just move to the hills.

    The far bigger problem I’ve faced with this issue is that any number you specify is entirely arbitrary and entirely subject to inflation because of people like Bono who believe copyrights should be infinite. And I haven’t been able to adequately pick a number to be sufficiently happy. For example, 14 years may be satisfactory — for whom? — for a book, but that’s absurdly long for software where 4 years may be more reasonable. On top of that, software is protected by copyright but the source code is never publicly disclosed so I question if it should even be afforded copyright protection at all since the public will never get the original source code at the end of the “bargain.” Would software coverage require submitting a ZIP file to the Library of Congress? What if that ZIP is missing a key file required to reconstruct the application, should it’s copyright be voided?

    And then there’s the issues of industries that have no IP protection at all but have ferocious competition. Namely the design industry. That makes me question the legitimacy of the bargain as a means to foster creation.

  27. Attempts to fix, say, copyrights will be essentially futile and largely a waste of effort. For any term limits you lobby them to enact will be squashed by the far deeper pockets of Mickey Mouse.

    I’m not yet cynical enough to accept a priori that deep pockets will always and necessarily beat reasoned argument. I know that often they do, but that’s the fight we have to fight.

  28. Pingback: Linkblogging for 09/05/14 | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  29. Bertie Wooster

    RIP Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

  30. I’m 60 and have never read To Kill a Mockingbird, even though I often hear people half my age mentioning how much they like it.
    I think 20-something years is reasonable for copyright. So if you die tomorrow, your last few years of work can help support your infant child through college.

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