Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lifetime + 70 Years Is Way Too Long for Copyrights

Today's letters in the Star Tribune contained one I wish I'd written:

Copyrights: Current laws not what Constitution intended

As dean of libraries emeritus at South Dakota State University, I read with interest "Digital books put on hold" (May 10).

The U.S. Constitution says, "Congress shall have Power 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."

In our federal republic's earliest years, the "limited times" totaled 14 years. Congress, with the Supreme Court's approval, has extended this to the author's lifetime plus 70 years, meaning a century or more.

Today's centurylong copyright terms reward not only authors, as intended by the framers, but now also the author's children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, who are not mentioned in the Constitution.

The long shadow of copyright inhibits cultural efforts, events and institutions by imposing decadeslong obligations to seek permission and make payments in order to republish a poem or a scientific paper, to televise a movie, to play music or read a poem in public performance, or now to read an old book online.

This is not progress in promoting the progress of science and useful arts.

--Steve Marquardt, Lake Lillian, Minn.
I have to admit that 14 years seems a bit short... I can imagine scenarios where a book or piece of music isn't popular until after 14 years go by, then suddenly it makes it big and the author gets nothing from it.

But the life of the author (or in the case of group or corporate authorship, some set length such as 40 or 50 years) seems completely reasonable. I could be persuaded to something even a bit shorter -- 30 years, maybe.

Here's a great graph from the Wikipedia showing how copyright lengths have changed over the life of the U.S.:

See, now, isn't it cool that I can use their chart and know that they won't sue me as long as I give them credit?


Roland D. Yeomans said...

Copyright for the lifetime of the author and his children seems fair. But anything over that seems excessive.

But then my grandfather wasn't the author of THE WIZARD OF OZ either. I might have a different view of things then!

Interesting post, Roland

David Steinlicht said...

I don't know anything about this, but I once heard a crank say that the reason copyright keeps getting longer is so the Disney company can continue to hold its copyright on Mikey Mouse.

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