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.
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.