No to perpetual copyright

I’ve talked about copyright before. I believe the extension of the life of copyright is a bad thing for artists/creators. If that sounds counterintuitive, you should read the articles below…

— Mark Helprin, a fellow at the Claremont Institute, argues that copyright should be perpetual! He equates copyright ownership with that of land ownership (or any other tangible asset). There’s a fundamental flaw in that argument and the next link (below) explains it well. I believe Helprin’s moving in the wrong direction on copyright.

— Lawrence Lessig starts a wiki page to offer a counter to Helprin. Excellent collaborative piece that explains why Helprin is wrong and why freeing creative works after a certain point helps to “free culture”. In addition to explaining the difference between tangible works and intangible property, it clarifies the point that artists are entitled to profit from their work, but usually the ability to extract value from a work, ends after a few years. When that period is over, the rights should end in order to allow others to create…

Further, the legal burden on authors and artists would increase immeasurably, literally to the point where no new works could be produced. There are a limited number of popular plot lines, a limited number of melodies, and so forth. As already noted, artists have always appropriated others works and incorporated it into their own. Homer, Shakespeare, Calder, Warhol — there is no artist that does not incorporate the culture that surrounds them, produced by previous artists and artisans. into their own art. It would be impossible for an artist to research the copyright ownership of every element they incorporate into the work they produce.

But,you say, it would be absurd to copyright, for example, plots. Boy meets girl.Consider then, music written in 4/4 time. A liberal calculation, assuming a 16 note scale, sharps, flats, and regular notes, the possibility of silence, a possible 32 beats per note, and 4 beats per bar, yields a total of only 75,264 different melodies expressed in 12 bars or less. This includes one or more repetitions within the 12 bar interval, as well as the melody of John Cage’s 4’33”. At the rate of one new melody per day, surely not an outrageous rate given the number of musicians in the world, all possible 4/4 melodies will be exhausted in a mere 207 years. Of course we will run out of appealing 4/4 melodies far sooner.

In addition, the wiki postulates that artists should be able to attach a creative commons license to their works so that they can determine that the work can not be used for commercial purposes etc.

Since I now fall into the camp of creators (albeit a very, very minor one with my two little short films), I tried to put myself in the shoes of a creator and think about this problem. After the end of the copyright period,1 I would be perfectly happy to attach a Creative Commons license to my work and let it go2. Now, for me, the Creative Commons license would be a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license3 so if someone else makes money off my work, they have to pay me. But if they don’t and if they attribute appropriately, and are also willing to share their work, go for it.

— Finally, here’s a YouTube video that Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University put together using minuscule clips from Disney cartoons. It explains copyright law, how it has changed, and provides a brief overview of Fair Use as well – all by clipping words out of the Disney cartoons! Worth a watch.

Hat tip for both the YouTube video and the debate between Helprin and Lessig: Boing Boing


  1. What about before the end of the copyright period? Hmm… probably fine with that too, if the Creative Commons license is followed. 

  2. Note: Copyright is now the life of the author/creator plus seventy years! Clearly way too long. 

  3. The same one that covers this blog 

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  • Just remembered that I’d meant to go into angry old man mode on my blog over the Helprin piece, thanks for reminding me.

    Releasing something under a creative commons license after the copyright has expired would probably be redundant, Shri — when the copyright expires, the work is in the public domain. The challenge with a lot of corporate media (as Cory Doctorow found out when he released his first novel under a CC license) is that there are a bunch of parties (publishers, investors, etc.) besides the creator who have to get accustomed to the idea of an open license. But as Cory and others are demonstrating, for individuals or companies who aren’t dominant in their fields, getting their work distributed is far more important than having absolute control over the IP. When people spontaneously create audiobooks of your work and translations into languages you never heard of, you know you’ve done the right thing — for culture in general as well as for your own business.

  • Shripriya

    Jeffrey – excellent point re: CC and copyright, especially since copyright is now life of author PLUS 70 years!! I will make the change (another reason not to write posts at 1AM 🙂 ).

  • This post reminds me of the painfully obvious fact that I don’t even have a Creative Commons copyright on my blog. Sigh.

  • August

    I’m with you Shri, extending the copyright duration is a bad idea. And most of the pro-artist/pro-strong copyright groups are against Helprin’s proposal. Don’t worry, there will be no effort or momentum to move this forward. It has a lot of flaws. The zero-sum argument isn’t even one of the bigger ones (and has some flaws of its own as a counterpoint).

    With copyright and trademark logic very similar in legal justification, think of the cost if trademarks were made perpetual. No more generic brand pharmaceuticals, etc…

    >>”…for individuals or companies who aren’t dominant in their fields, getting their work distributed is far more important than having absolute control over the IP.”

  • August

    My last post was cut off:

    >>”…for individuals or companies who aren’t dominant in their fields, getting their work distributed is far more important than having absolute control over the IP.”

  • August

    Something is wrong with the software, trying again:

    “…for individuals or companies who aren’t dominant in their fields, getting their work distributed is far more important than having absolute control over the IP.”

    Well said. Of course current copyright law does not interfere with this goal at all if that’s a creator’s objective. A creator can always permit wide, liberal usage if he/she chooses. Creative Commons is great for this purpose, and works well hand-in-hand with copyright law.

  • Krishna

    Generally agree with you.

    The one thing that Lessig doesn’t pick up on in his (otherwise excellent) article is that patents are protected for a far shorter period of time than copyrights are!

    I think Lessig was awesome in clearly outlining how Copyright is a merely Government mandated largess to promote sharing creative work. In fact, with that in mind, shouldn’t we have higher taxes on copyright related payments?

    Why should a copyright last any longer than a patent? It demonstrates an ill-deserved respect for art over science/engineering. An society which values a TV show or a movie more than something that’s concretely useful and productive will end up with a population that wants to become performers rather than engineers – Oh wait! The US has just that problem, doesn’t it?

  • Shripriya

    @ Megha – you should do it. Takes a couple of minutes. Really very simple.

    @ August – I agree that Creative Commons is a great tool for artists but I think using it in concert with current copyright won’t work. The thing is that current copyright laws are so onerous that in order to really free up “creating”, I think that they need to go back to the historical limitations – 28 years. Seems more than enough to me.
    I am sorry you had problems posting your response (will investigate).

    @ Krishna – First let me disagree with your underlying premise that science is more important than art. I think for a truly evolved society both are equally important. In fact, great art can motivate scientists to be even more creative etc. That said, I agree with you that valuing copyright more highly than a patent is a fundamental flaw. Good point.

  • Will someone please explain why everyone who thinks permanent copyright is a bad idea, refers to ‘few years’, ‘reasonable time’ et al?

    What is the cut-off? Is it the creator’s death? Or is it the absence of a certain revenue number? Either way, I can think of a million examples to counter this argument. I am sure, they are apparent to you too. So, will you let me know how your optimization works? And what your corresponding weights are for ‘public good’ and ownership?

    he reason I ask is, if one were to accept your argument, one can sufficiently extend it to say, there must be no copyright. I know you don’t mean to say that — but the argument begs the extension.

  • Shripriya

    Nilu – Currently the copyright is the creator’s death plus seventy years. The issue comes down to what is reasonsable – a period that allows the creator of the work to extract value, but also allows culture to build by allowing the use of that work as a building block.

    Just FYI, when copyright started, it used to be 28 years. By the same token, patents are covered for 14 years. There are lots of publications about the length of patents (copyrights) and innovation. Like this one. Alternatively, you could read Lessig’s book 🙂

    Personally, I believe that Creative Commons is a better option than copyright.

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