A Copyright Proposal

Copyright is a balancing act. It’s awesome that we have a framework in place that allows artists of all kinds to make a living enriching our culture. At the same time, ownership of creative works needs to be temporary. At some point, works need to be released to the public domain so that any artist can build on and reinterpret those works.

The questions are of length and scope. How long should copyright last before a work enters the public domain? And during that period, what rights should the copyright holder enjoy, and what rights should be retained by consumers?

I see three basic issues with copyright as it is practiced today.

The first is that copyright protection simply lasts too long. In the United States, copyright protection for individuals lasts 70 years beyond the life of the author, much longer than is necessary to provide incentives for creative individuals to be creative. If copyright lasted only, say, 35 years beyond the death of the author, no artist would say to him or herself, “I’d take the time to write a great novel if copyright lasted 70 years beyond the year of my death; 35 years after I’m dead just isn’t long enough. I’ll go watch TV instead.”

The second is that current copyright laws make it too easy for copyright holders to clamp down on non-competing, non-commercial uses of protected works. Prince, who is famously protective of his work, used copyright to force a mother to take down a video of her toddler jamming to Let’s Go Crazy playing in the background. There’s no way this use of the work could have been used as a reasonable substitute for purchasing the commercial product, as it was both incomplete and (very) low fidelity. Yet, seven years later, this case continues to drag on in court.

Third, copyright laws make no allowance for sharing of works even in situations where it feels completely natural and unobjectionable to do so. For instance, if I buy a music file that I keep on my laptop, putting a copy on my wife’s mp3 player is illegal.

I’d add a fourth problem that isn’t an issue with copyright law per se, but is perhaps a by-product of the control that content providers feel over their works thanks to copyright. My wife and I sat down to watch a movie this weekend, and I was dismayed to discover that during the previews, including a mind numbing Blu-Ray commercial, every single control on the remote except power and stop was locked out. It’s bad enough that previews often lock out the main menu, but to lock out any way at all to fast forward was infuriating and utterly disrespectful of the customer.

I don’t see copyright law changing, unfortunately, as every revision of copyright law has given more rights to copyright owners, not fewer. However, independent content creators have the power to take matters into their own hands. Corporations never will because they have no economic incentive. Their goal is to make money, not to enrich our shared culture.

As creation tools become better and more accessible, however, and distribution is democratized, independent creators are going to become more important. And, as we’ve witnessed with Creative Commons, many independent artists (and even some corporations) are willing to forego some of their legal copyrights for the greater good.

With that, I put forth the Giant Shoulders copyright pledge for critique. This pledge, like Creative Commons, could be voluntarily invoked by independent artists to apply to specific works.

Giant Shoulders Logo Draft

Giant Shoulders logo draft (created with Toby Schachman’s wonderful Recursive Drawing Tool)

I, as the copyright holder of this work, pledge the following.

The exclusive right of a creator to copy his or her work should not outlive that creator. Therefore, I pledge that this work, upon my passing, enters the public domain.

I will decline any digital rights management (DRM) offered by publishers. This includes controls preventing printing, copying, pasting portions into other works, and so fourth. Depending on the medium and distribution channel, content creators may not have a choice, but where a choice is offered, DRM will be declined.

Making copies of this work for your personal devices and those of your immediate family is perfectly acceptable.

Non-commercial derivative works (e.g., fan fiction) are encouraged as long as the derivative works are clearly original and not just copies of this work.

Non-commercial excerpts are fine, too, as long as they aren’t reasonable substitutes for the original. Remixing excerpts of this work to combine it with other works to create something clearly distinct from the original for non-commercial sharing is encouraged. I’m eager to see what you come up with.

(A note about commercial use: Using a work commercially means attempting to achieve direct financial gain from use of the work. It would be non-commercial to share a work on YouTube, even if YouTube posts ads around it that you don’t personally benefit from. However, selling the work or directly benefiting from advertising associated with the work would be commercial use.)

None of the pledges above are meant to supersede or supplant existing fair use rights.

I’m interested in your thoughts. Are the provisions outlined above just good sense, or do even these modest proposals create significant risk that artists will be taken advantage of? What are the holes? Would we as a culture benefit from copyright reform?

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One thought on “A Copyright Proposal

  1. Pat Lilja

    I agree completely! Hear Hear!

    It is possible though that the House Report on the Audio Home Recording Act 1992 revision (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/House_Report_102-780) would, in fact, allow you to download an mp3 and put a copy of it on your wife’s mp3 player. It has never successfully been refuted in court (and seemed to be affirmed in RIAA v. Diamond Multimedia. Seems to me lawmakers would just a soon do whatever they can to avoid copyright refrom as anything.

    I just wish my nephew’s reenactment of a scene from the Muppet Movie didn’t put him at risk for being sued due to his unauthorized derivative work (although it did skirt the edges of parody).

    Reply

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