You probably saw that the Supreme Court upheld Congress’s 20-year copyright extension. The Court said it may have been bad public policy, but the Congress was well within its bounds to make bad policy on this.

(Basically, copyrights already applied for the lifetime of the author and 50 years beyond, or for 75 years in the case of a corporate owner like Disney’s ownership of Mickey Mouse.)

My own view – which is almost completely selfless, as I have zero intention of outliving myself by more than 50 years – is that it was actually good public policy.

To me, there is a huge difference between a patent and a copyright.

For one thing, a patent is generally issued to cover something that someone else would have invented sooner or later anyway. (Didn’t Alexander Graham Bell beat his closest competitor to the patent office by only a day or two?) What is the likelihood someone else would have written Gone With the Wind or created Mickey Mouse if Margaret Mitchell and the Walt Disney folks hadn’t?

For another, a patent grants a monopoly on something people may really need, like a lifesaving drug or a TV remote control . . . or that, at the least, could cause a bottleneck in what would otherwise be a more prosperous economy if only competitors were allowed to manufacture it. Surely there is no such hardship if Mickey or Snoopy or Gone with the Wind remain under copyright.

Copyright protection doesn’t keep anyone from enjoying these creative works. You can still get them free from the library or occasionally see them free on TV (even tape them for your own future viewing). Why should ownership of a copyright ever fall into the public domain unless the owner chooses to donate it (or fails to renew it)? Does private land automatically become public after 100 years of ownership? No. Must Coca Cola reveal its secret formula after a set number of years, so any company can make and sell Coca Cola? No. (And must the Coke logo itself fall into the public domain as Mickey’s likeness would without copyright extension? Not that, either, under current law.) Is the Van Gogh that your grandparents bought and passed down to you automatically snatched away to be placed on public display? No. You own this creative work and can even keep it hidden if you want.

So why should the ownership of a copyright expire?

Better, perhaps, to give copyright owners some modest tax incentive to donate or bequeath ownership to the public domain – but keep it voluntary.

For the opposing view to mine, click here. But I would argue that life will go on if United Airlines decides not to pay $500,000 for the right to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ while you’re waiting on the runway. They can play something that costs less – there will be plenty of competition to sell them music – or play nothing at all.

Finally, while I’m no copyright expert, ‘fair use’ and ‘parody’ conventions seem more or less adequate to allow a vigorous public debate and free press. If I quote a snippet of someone else’s work, to applaud or rebut it, or to help make a point of my own, that’s fair use (generally, up to 250 words). In most circumstances, no permission need be obtained or royalty paid. If I parody someone else’s work, there are special provisions for that as well. (And if, on occasion, I become a parody of myself, as at least one Republican friend has charged, I surely have not violated my own copyright.)

 

Comments are closed.