Copyright is a funny old thing. It enshrines in law the ability to own an idea which is enforceable by legal means. The media some times I feel doesn’t understand how or what copyright is. When the refers to people “stealing” music, thus demonising these criminals they are in fact wrong. The law may still view the people downloading music as criminals it is not for stealing but instead copyright infringement, it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it?
As it stands things covered by copyright law are not allowed to be wholly used in the public domain until the copyright expires. In most of the world the default length of copyright for many works is generally the life of the author plus either 50 or 70 years. What this effectively means is that nothing created in my lifetime will ever become available in the public domain (unless an author died very close to when I was born). In the US this date seams to track with whenever Disneys copyright on Mickey Mouse is about to run out. Every time they get close they lobby to add another 20 years to copyright duration.
There was an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times last week-end detailing an argument for what amounts to perpetual copyright. The piece in some ways blew my mind. The central argument is that the author of the piece, Mark Helprin, believes that the created of intellectual work should be no different than property and the product of the intellectual work can be owned forever, either by the original authors estate or property investors. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a piece like this has been written by a professional writer. There are those of us in the work that the product of our work is a salary, and it behooves us to take the product of that one time work and make it work for us and our families in the future. If the work you do is successful you may gain a bonus, but come 5 or 10 years hence what ever work you did in the past has been forgotten.
The copyright reform community is crafting a reply over at Lawrence Lessig’s wiki. Which they cover the legal aspects and the cultural aspects of this nonsense piece. I have in my wanderings of the internet seen suggestion that it is only a satire but neither Mark Helprine or the New York Times come forward and admitted it.
However the whole thing reminds me of tipping and in particular tipping in America. I have worked on again/off again in America. Tipping like copyright law in America has lost it meaning. Tipping is supposed to be a recognition of an above average job. In most other cultures that is still how it works. This all holds up because the base salary is supposed to be sufficient for the employee. However in America some occupations are now been built around the concept of compulsory tipping, so much so that in the cases of waitresses, their base rate is lower than minimum wage and need to make up the shortfall in tips. So this then leads to a situation where tipping is no longer a reward of above average work but some kind of out of band sales tax. The only effective way to use tipping now is as a punitive measure, a tip is withheld if the service is bad. Tipping in America, especially for non-Americans, is captured well in Reservoir Dogs. Mr. Pink’s rant about been enforced to tip, while probably put in to make him seem weaselly has some very valid arguments :
I don’t tip because society says I gotta. I tip when somebody deserves a tip. When somebody really puts forth an effort, they deserve a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, that shit’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doin their job.
Copyright law runs the risk of becoming as irrelevant. It original purpose was put in place to give artists an incentive to create work, knowing it would return future wealth. But the original length was something more like 25 years from creation of the content. It didn’t even take J.K. Rowlings or Dan Brown that long to become multi-millionaires based on there books. Now that may seem to be a bad example but are there any cases of people becoming successful 25 years after the work has been created? It will more than likely be a success or a failure when it comes out and still the the same success or failure 25 years later. With the exception of J.K. Rowlings, Dan Brown and the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien who really makes money from such hyper extended copyright, corporations like Disney and Time Warner. Does copyright really protect and incentify the content producers? Unlikely since people create and give away content for free on YouTube, Flickr, Blogging etc. It would be nice to have this all cleared up soon, but their lawyers are bigger than mine.