Monday, March 30, 2009

Copyright Copyright Copyright - A 30 year thought experiment

Penny for your thoughts? Or are they copyrighted?

I've just read Remix by Laurence Lessig, The Public Domain by James Boyle, and I'm halfway through Content by Cory Doctorow. I'm swimming in progressive copyright theory right now, and it got me thinking.

What would the US be like if copyright lasted a flat 30 years?

In the public domain:
All the music, movies and TV of the 70's and earlier
Movies like Star Wars and 2001.
All earliest video games
Most of the 'classic' games. Monopoly, Dungeons and Dragons (early editions), Scrabble, Risk, etc.

Peer to peer file sharing would transform from a semi-criminal operation to a completely above board and essential part of everyday life. All of the old material would be available, for free, on the internet, all legal. In addition, an entire industry of compilations, reissues, remixes, and reimaginings would be possible. All free from licencing fees, permissions, and red tape. The majority of 20th century copyrighted works is NOT available in any form, nor are the copyright holders even known in many (most?) cases. Those works go from their current state of almost complete unavailability, to becoming completely accessible, with no effort at all.

The people most negatively impacted by a radical curtailing of copyright would be:
  • Large media corporations.
  • Artists who make money from work they did years and years ago.
  • Lawyers who make their living defending the previous two's "rights".
The purpose of copyright is to provide for the public good by ensuring that content creators can benefit from the fruits of their labors. The original methodology was to give creators an artificial monopoly over their creation that lasts long enough for them to get paid, but no longer. The sooner the content was in the public domain, the sooner the public as a whole could benefit from the work. That second part got lost in the shuffle and copyright has grown from the original, lasting 28 years from the creation of the work, to the current, lasting 75 years past the death of the creator.

Would George Lucas have created Star Wars if he had known he could only control it for 30 years? Would Gary Gygax have made Dungeons and Dragons? Would Dylan have written all that great music? I can't get into other people's heads, but I think most of the great works of the 20th century would still have been created, even with a far shorter shelf-life on the artificial monopoly we call copyright.

Would Lucas still have produced the new Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies if the source material was in, or soon to be in, the public domain? If not, somebody else could have. Is that a bad thing? Lucas is still the only person who can make 'official' movies, but what if they are forced to compete with everyone creating Star Wars content? That competition might have made a difference, quality-wise. Change the equation from 'who can make Star Wars' to 'who can make the best Star Wars'. Now apply that formula to everything (or at least everything 30 years or older.)

Make no mistake. Copyright is not a God given right given to content producers. It is not a reward to content producers. It is a legally created 'temporary' monopoly designed to encourage creative works.

What if anyone could create:
  • A Star Wars, Star Trek novel, comic, or movie.
  • A remix of Led Zepplin, Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, Hendrix song.
  • A video game starring Mario
  • Anything you can think of, from material created before 1980.
I believe there'd be a tidal wave of content using newly public domain works. Most would be terrible, but some would be amazing. Some would be of far greater quality than then current owners of the properties are willing or able to produce from within their monopoly protected walls.

What could you create?


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