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How Copyright Terms Cramp Our Creativity and Culture

copyright_symbolBefore Christmas, I bought a copy of Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. Like many traditionally-minded Americans, I watch it every Christmas, and it has contributed significantly to forming my personality.

In fact, it's had a significant role in forming a wider “personality”: our American culture. It's one of those many “classics” that get assimilated into our collective memory and influence us in many ways, one of which is inspiring new works. Unfortunately, using creative works used by people other than their authors is highly restricted nowadays. Why? Our copyright terms are too long.

Copyright isn't intrinsically a bad thing; in fact, it's one of the benefits of capitalism. It's meant to encourage cultural contribution by helping people to make money through their art. Copyright lets the creator of a work (book, song, scientific study, and so on) profit from it for a certain period of time. Then, the work enters the public domain, so that others can republish it, perform it, and create works based on it.

This allows the work to become cultural heritage. Originally, U.S. copyright fulfilled this function by letting artists keep the rights to their works for up to 56 years after publication. But in 1978 the copyright terms were massively extended to 70 years after the artist's death.

Why should conservatives care? Because American creativity is starved of materials to work with. All artists build on other artists' works, and sometimes the greatest works are openly derivative. Think about Vergil using Homer, or Dante using Vergil. According to the old laws, all works from before 1959 would have been in the public domain as of January 1, 2015. Imagine if any elementary school could perform a Narnia play, or any passionate Tolkien fan could make a (better) movie of The Hobbit! With the old law, that would have been possible. We could have put more classics on the internet or reprinted and sold them cheaply, giving more people, including those less fortunate, access to great works and helping them become well-read, better-educated citizens.

Unfortunately, nothing will enter America's public domain until 2019. There are even works (including It's a Wonderful Life) which were in the public domain by the old laws, but pulled back out by the new ones, no doubt stopping many derivative projects in their tracks.

Copyright was invented to foster creativity. Now, it's inhibiting creativity. It's a means for big companies who can afford to deal with copyright legalities to keep making profits.

Sounds oddly like something Mr Potter would enact, doesn't it?

There are also those “orphan works” which are under copyright but have no discernible copyright holders, and those works that publishing companies don't see as money-makers–both of which are perpetually out of print. They're moldering on shelves, unable to benefit anyone. The sooner they enter the public domain, the sooner people with talent and desire can use them.

Unfortunately, they're stuck there at least until 2019. Those works are dying a lonely death; but if copyright terms were reasonable again, they could live a wonderful life.

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