Copyright or Right to Copy?

Unlimited right to copy?

Unlimited right to copy?

In amongst all the flag waving and chest beating following the EU election was the news that the Pirate Party has won at least one seat in the EU parliament. This lead to a flurry of lame nautical puns in various newspaper headings “Ahoy! Pirate Party gets berth in European Parliament” for example.

It’s a relatively new party, started in 2006 and getting a huge publicity boost based on the conviction in the Pirate Bay case in Sweden. In the days following the verdict around 9000 people joined the party, making it the largest in Sweden.

The Pirate Party has a fairly narrow platform, their three stated goals are;

  • reform of copyright law
  • abolish the patent system
  • respect for the right to privacy

The first has a particular relevance to online communications, where theft of content is frequent and difficult to combat.

The Pirate Party wants to reduce the term of copyright to five years, and argues that the current long copyright terms stifle creativity and only support corporate value. I have my doubts about this so decided to do some digging.

Expansion of U.S. copyright law

Expansion of U.S. copyright law

Over the last two hundred years the term of copyright (in the US) has grown from 28 years (in 1780) to lifetime plus 70 years under current US law. (as shown at right). In fact the 1780 situation is exaggerated in the graph. Initial copyright was granted for a period of 14 years with a further 14 year period possible on application.

Internationally there seems to be a great divide; developed nations all have copyright terms of lifetime plus 25, 50 or 70 years, while a few of the more troubled developing nations (Afghanistan, Somalia) have nothing. I would expect there to be some consistency across mature markets since copyright has a trade implication.

There argument to maintain the current length of copyright is usually framed in terms of protecting the money earnt by artists and writers. The argument for reform usually points out that most artists and writers make their income from their creations in the first couple of years – shorter if the creation is online, and that the long copyright terms tend to benefit corporate holders of copyrights. For example Disney holds the rights to Winnie-the-Pooh, the rights were sold by the family decades ago and well after the death of author A.A. Milne.

The first copyright was created by printers, to create a monopoly right on the printing of each work. It was an agreement by members of the Stationers’  Company. In contrast the origin of copyright law in the US was to encourage creativity and the spread of ideas.

The core purpose of copyright law is not difficult to find; it is stated expressly in the Constitution. Article I, section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution provides that Congress shall have the 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 that light life plus 70 years seems wildly excessive, there’s no evidence that extending the copyright over the years has increased the rate of creativity, which isn’t surprising since most of the time a work is covered by copyright is after the death of the author/inventor.

There is a lot of discussion around copyright changes, and frankly the law hasn’t kept up with the technology which has led to some other ways for creators to protect their works;

  • copyleft – using copyright law to remove restrictions on distributing copies
  • creative commons – granting restricted rights while retaining ownership (used on this blog)
  • MyFreeCopyright – a way of ensuring you can prove you are the copyright holder

But is Pirate Party’s stated goal of 5-year copyright terms sensible? What would the right length of copyright protection be?

the hand of time

the hand of time

They state that if you haven’t made money in the first 1-2 years you probably won’t. That’s probably true for online content and software development, but it might not be so true for works of art/literature which would take years to create, a year to publish (often), and may years later be picked up for movie rights. I realise this is a minority of the works but reducing the copyright period to 5 years will decrease their earnings significantly.

What if the type of work influenced the copyright term? What if author had more choice into how the works were treated?

Perhaps we need to consider tiers of copyright terms, so shorter works published directly online would have a maximum of a five year copyright. Longer works which required significant time to create might deserve a longer protection, say 10 years. Or perhaps the protection might cover only publication in the same form. So that your online articles couldn’t be published by someone else as a book for profit at the end of the copyright term (dare to dream) or if you wrote a Great Novel that somehow wasn’t discovered for a few years a movie company would still need to buy those rights from you.

While the life + 70 years currently in force is over the top the potential make money from creative works needs to be protected for the creator and if we’re going to review the term of copyright, lets also look at the conditions.

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