Saturday, 17 October 2015

Copyright Questions

I copied this off the web :)
Based on various leaks and other comments it is generally supposed that the
newly signed TPP agreement (whose contents are still too secret for the rest of us to know) will extend copyright 20 years beyond existing arrangements. This got me thinking about copyright and why it exists.

Our household gets a serious chunk of income from copyrighted works, so without it I'd have to get something more like a proper job. Just so you know where I'm coming from. People who would like to see copyright done away with completely need to have a plan for people like me. I'm not saying such a plan is impossible, just that they have to have one.

Copyright arrangements usually have an expiry date some years after the author's death. Within that there is usually a 'fair use' provision allowing people to quote from a work, create derived works and so on, the idea being that the work should be allowed to contribute to society without too much encroachment on the the author's income. The expiry date varies by media (music is different from film is different from books etc) and, of course, by country. It seems to vary between 25 to 70 years, with the USA being something of an outlier (95 to 120 years for works published since 1978). It is easy to find opinion that the USA position is driven by lobbying from Disney.

The TPP leaks suggest the USA position has been picked up and will apply to all the signatories:

"The TPP could extend copyright term protections from life of the author + 50 years, to Life + 70 years for works created by individuals, and either 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation for corporate owned works (such as Mickey Mouse)."

Sounds good if your income derives from copyrighted works, eh?

Let's be clear who this benefits. It isn't the author. Well, of course not. The author is dead. The author's estate (eg the grandchildren )? Maybe, a bit. But say you wrote a book in 1930 that did brilliantly and you promptly died. 70 years later, around 2000, the book is still selling. Your publishers have done very, very well. They hold the rights to the book, not you (and you're dead anyway). Sure your kids and grand kids got a nice little income from your work, possibly enough to save them from getting proper jobs (though almost certainly not). But you didn't benefit at all from the extended copyright. Your grieving spouse survived you by, say, 20 years and benefited from the income, which is good, of course. But that's where it ends.

Now, this isn't evil or anything like that. But it got me thinking about why copyright should ever expire. The 'corporate owned works' go on for 120 years, why stop there?

There is a reason. Copyrighted works don't just come out of one person's head. They are at least partly a product of the culture. Jane Austen produced works from her culture, Walt Disney produced works from his. Of course they should benefit from their works, but it is fair enough that the culture that produced these individuals should eventually absorb their work back again.

We might extend that argument to inheritance generally. Should the family farm be passed on forever? Maybe. But some countries add death duties to the transaction, probably using a similar argument. I've always been a little uncomfortable with inheritance, but then I don't much like entrenched hierarchies so that's predictable enough.

So I'm not hard and fast on just how long the copyright should last, but I'm wary of what is driving it, namely corporate power, rather than author benefits. I definitely think that there should be an expiry date and 50 seems better than 70 to me. 120 seems absurd.

What do you think? Do you derive income from copyright? Do you want to leave that income to your kids? Your grand kids? What's your expiry number?

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