Let’s Cut the Copyright Down to Five Years

RIAA Behaving Badly; Let's Cut Their Copyright Privileges – Wolfe's Den Blog – InformationWeek

Alexander Wolfe is out with an article over at Information Week suggesting that one way to get back at the RIAA and other organizations that are trying to mercilessly beat on you all day long for doing simple things like, say, ripping your legitimately purchased CDs, is to take away their copyright priviliges.

More specifically, he suggests that copyright protection ought to be cut back from 75 years (and in some cases 125 years) for corporate authorship to 5 years.

From Wolfe:

“How about we cut the copyright terms down to five years. Retroactively. So now “Stairway to Heaven” is in the public domain. Hey, the ongoing RIAA lawsuit problem is gone in one fell swoop.

Do I hear some objections in the courtroom, like if we cut down copyright protections, artists lose out? This would be a legitimate complaint if artists really benefited currently from copyright. But they mostly don’t. It’s generally the large corporations who extract the maximum benefit from their rights, and then trickle a little of it down to songwriters and authors. (Even a little blogger such as myself doesn’t own the rights to his own words; my employer does. Yeah, I know: “But they give you a job and they pay you.” Whatever.)”

I think Wolfe is on to something here. I like this idea. Particularly as more and more art becomes remixing and reassembling works of collage and mixed media, I think that this sort of a new copyright would better allow new and broader types of art to flourish.

I’d love to see more and more of the backlash to things like the RIAA morph into bigger initiatives to cut back the number of years that copyright provides.

How would I feel about my own work, as a content creator, falling into the public doman 5 years after I publish it? I’d love it! I’d especially enjoy watching the way people reused and remixed my public domain content resulting in more attention and marketibility for my work that was still within the 5 year protection window.

I think that a movement like this would better democratize the arts in the United States, allowing fresh new talent to continually bubble to the top.

I don’t think a movement like this would hurt most artists at all. The only ones likely to be hurt by this would be the large super successful artists (who you could hardly now argue *need* copyright protection in order to survive as an artist) and the large media conglomerates that are really more in the business of fleecing artists than really looking out for their best interests.

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10 Comments

  1. barrettmanor says:

    I have to argue that this doesn’t work so well for authors. Sure, I can release any of my work into the public domain at any time I want, but the ability to control my backlist is also important to my finances. I just contributed a story to an anthology. Whenever I sell a short I keep the copyright but the publisher purchases certain rights for X amount of time. Book contracts work in a similar way, at least for novels. A publisher may buy certain rights for X years.

    And what if someone wants to base a film on a story I published back in 2000? As an example, Brokeback Mountain was published in 1987. Had the copyright expired in five years the author wouldn’t have seen a single red cent from the subsequent film.

    I agree that the copyright period is too long, five years won’t cut it – at least not for writers.

  2. Zandr says:

    I think the first century of copyright in this country had it right: 14 years, renewable once.

    That’s long enough to allow creators to benefit for a reasonable amount of time, and keeps a good flow of work into the public domain. The renewal step also accelerates the release of a lot of content that isn’t making any money, which could only be a good thing.

  3. JeffH says:

    I agree that copyrights periods are way too long, but five years is a little short for most (writers, photographers, artists, poets, etc.) to be able to make a decent return on the time, effort and expense they put in to creating their work. I like aleksandar’s idea of shorter period of time, similar to the length of a US patent, with possibly one renewal.

  4. JeffH says:

    I’d like to pose a question as I’m not sure of the mechanism in which copyrighted work enters the public domain. FYI, These are sincere questions.

    So at the end of 75 Years, I as an Artist or Photographer or writer have a body of work, some has been shown publicly, some sold or licenced and much of my work is locked away in my personal collection. No one but me has ever seen what I have locked away, nor does anyone know what I have. So when the copyright expires, how does it enter the public domain?

    For work that I have published, is it now fair game for anyone who can find a copy (in the case of written word or photograph) on the internet or in print and use it for what ever they want? Am I obligated to provide a high resolution copy of my photographs to anyone who requests them? In this case will I have the right to be compensated for storage and distribution expenses? Who will keep track of what is public and what is still under copyright? Who will pay for this activity?

    For work that I have never shown and no one knows exists, will some governmental agency come to my house and inventory my work or cease it to put it in the public domain?

  5. Rick Pali says:

    Jeffh,

    If a work enters the public domain, the creator is under no obligation to help others view/see/hear it. The work you have locked away is in the public domain, but the fact that no one knows about it is immaterial to copyright. Sure it’s a factor in dissemination of the work, but that’s not your obligation or responsibility.

    At least that’s my understanding.

  6. barrettmanor says:

    jeffh, those are very good questions. Keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer, and the following is not legal advice. (Paranoid? Me? What’s that over my shoulder?)

    Copyright.gov has some great FAQs you should read.

    Copyright starts the moment you create a work, but you can recover more damages in court if you’ve registered. As for something you’ve never registered, once you die it’s up to your heirs to decide what to do with it. If a random person finds it at a flea market after you die they can’t claim copyright.

    The copyright term depends on the date of creation. So if your heirs decide not to copyright it (they actually touch on this in the FAQ) it’ll slip into the public domain at the proper time.

    So no, the copyright police aren’t going to storm your house after you die. Copyright is a personal property, thus sayeth the government, and you can pretty much transfer it as you wish.

    (Keep in mind this is very basic information. If you need legal advice regarding copyrights, please find an attorney specializing in Intellectual Property law. This is especially true if you need to negotiate a publishing contract.)

  7. barrettmanor says:

    Here’s another resource of interest:

    Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center has more FAQs and articles about obtaining permission, researching copyrights, and a very nice section on public domain.

    (Still not a lawyer, but Alan Shore can come sit on my patio and have a drink anytime!)

  8. JeffH says:

    Thanks all for the links. I’m pretty familiar with copyrights from the creation end, but not the end-of-life end. I’ll have to do some reading.

  9. littlecharva says:

    As a musician I’d be quite happy for the recordings of my songs to fall into public domain after five years, but not necessarily the song itself.

    I wouldn’t want the next Britney Spears to trash my beautiful songs in five years without my permission and with no financial compensation, but if DJ X wants to remix the recording or use a sample from it, that would be cool.

  10. thekevinmonster says:

    I find it interesting that the faster technology accelerates, the more rapidly it changes our world… companies want longer and longer copyright terms, as if that will somehow guarantee that their control over things is not usurped by a complete change in the rules of the game.