Right and Wrong
The copy-right infringement.
By John Bloom
Whoever turned "copy right" into one word had to be a lawyer. We don't say
"freespeechright" or "gunright" or "assemblyright" or "religionright."
As a result, 99 percent of the public thinks that a copyright is some kind of
formal legal document. They think you have to go get it, or protect it, or
defend it, or preserve it, or buy it, or hire a lawyer to make sure you have
On the contrary, it's simply a right, like all our other rights, and it goes
like this: Whoever creates something that has never been created before has
the exclusive right to copy it.
It's not the person who registers it with the Library of Congress. It's the
person who does it first. Just the act of creation makes the right kick in.
Unlike other rights, though, this one is transferable. You can sell your
copyright, license your copyright, or give your copyright away. What's most
often done is that you let a big company ?say, a book publisher ?use the
copyright for a specific period of time, in return for money, and at the end
of that period the right reverts back to you.
One other difference: This is a right with a specific term.
The Founding Fathers wanted that term to be 14 years, with an additional 14
years if the author were still alive. After 28 years, they figured you'd had
your chance to exploit your creation, and now it belonged to the nation at
large. That way we would never end up with a system of hereditary privilege,
similar to the printers guilds of Renaissance England, who tied up rights to
dead authors and tightly controlled what could or could not be printed and who
could or could not use literary material.
In America, land of free ideas as well as free people, this would never
happen, they said.
Well, it's happened. It's happened because for years now Congress has allowed
it to happen. We now have an exact replica of the medieval Stationers'
Company, which controlled the English copyrights, only its names today are
Disney, Bertelsmann, and AOL Time Warner. The big media companies, holding the
copyrights of dead authors, have said, in effect, that Jefferson, Madison, and
Hamilton were wrong and that we should go back to the aristocratic system of
hereditary ownership, granting copyrights in perpetuity. To effect this
result, they've liberally greased the palms of Congressmen in the form of
campaign contributions ?and it's worked.
In the name of Mickey Mouse and other American icons, we have gradually
lengthened that 14-year limit on copyrights. At one time it was as much as 99
years, then scaled back to 75 years, then ?in one of the most anti-American
acts of the last century ?suspended entirely in 1998. The Sonny Bono
Copyright Term Extension Act of that year says simply that there will be no
copyright expirations for 20 years, meaning that everything published between
1923 and 1943 will not be released into the public domain. Presumably they'll
take up the matter again in 2018 and decide whether any of these books,
movies, or songs are ever set free. There are 400,000 of them.
What's especially hypocritical about this law is that many of the works
produced in this period, such as The Wizard of Oz, are based on works from
previous centuries that are already in the public domain. It's as though
Congress is saying that it would be wrong for the heirs of the Brothers Grimm
to own a perpetual copyright to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, because it
belongs to all people, but Walt Disney's version of it is so sacrosanct it
should earn money forever. Besides, if he really is cryogenically preserved,
he'll need those royalties when he comes back to visit. (And this was a man
who stole from everybody.)
I don't think it's hard to see who was greasing the skids to get a law passed
that seems unconstitutional on its face. With 1923 as the cutoff date, all
sound movies are protected for another 20 years. All pre-war Broadway musicals
are protected. All swing-era music is protected. Even the song "God Bless
America" falls into this period, so I hope you people are sending in your
Fortunately, the Supreme Court has agreed to rule on a case challenging the
Bono Act. It was brought by Eric Eldred of Derry, N.H., who started a website
for his teenage daughters in which he published online versions of classic
literary texts ?a site that eventually became a destination for students
around the world and received a commendation from the National Endowment for
the Humanities. That all changed on Oct. 7, 1998, when the Bono Act was
Congress apparently looked at the whole controversy as a property-rights
issue. It's not. It's a free-speech issue.
The Constitution is quite clear on the matter. It says copyrights are to be
granted for "limited times." I don't know any definition of "limited" that
would mean 75 years plus a 20-year extension plus the chance of getting
another extension later. The whole issue was argued three centuries ago, and
it was established as a principle of democracy that, when the author is dead,
his work becomes the property of all. This was modified slightly to allow the
first generation after his death to continue to collect royalties, presumably
to protect widows and children. But that's all that was intended. There was no
argument ever made for a third- or fourth-generation royalty, much less a
perpetual assignment of royalties to a corporation that never dies.
The reason it's important is this: Publishers are in the business of expanding
capital. The writers who supply them are in the business of expanding
Tools for expanding capital are available in many forms. Tools for expanding
civilization, on the other hand, are a limited commodity. They're resident in
the books of Hemingway and Faulkner, the movies of Disney and Capra, and the
songs of Kern and Berlin.
Give 'em up. We need 'em. We've got work to do.
It's not just the right thing to do. It's a right.
?John Bloom writes for United Press International. This is reprinted
with(out) permission. (in this e-mail)
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