Never-ending Cycle of Copyright Extension

Lawrence Lessig writes an interesting article at Wired about corporate copyright-holders pitting Europe and the United States against each other to continue the extension of copyright terms.

By law, once the limited monopoly granted through copyright expires creative works are placed in the public domain. Under current U.S. law, nothing will enter the public domain until 2019 although that date will change if Congress again extends the copyright term on creative works.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.


  1. The entire purpose of copyright was to encourage artists to take on the monumental task of publishing works in an age when the technology to do so was far too expensive for individuals. A limited monopoly of 25 years gave the creator more than enough time to profit from their work and the limited nature also encouraged creators to create more works to ensure more profits. The goal of copyright contrary to popular belief was never about making sure artists (or the corporations that soon rose up to exploit them) could make a living off their work. The sole purpose of copyright was to increase the number of works in the public domain. A limited monopoly was the means by which this goal was accomplished. That the artists (or corporations) were able to make a living from this was a fringe benefit.

    Unfortunately as soon as corporations muscled all control of creative processes the true purpose of copyright was quickly forgotten. Using their clout and influence they’ve convinced politicians that the purpose of copyright is profit and works falling into the public domain is anti-profit (which is bald-faced lie, a strong public domain ensures more profit for a society overall).

    Publication has never been easier or more affordable now. With the birth of the internet money is no longer the biggest block between an artist and the publication of his or her work. If there is less financual burdon in publishing now than there was when the original terms of copyright were only 25 years after first publication then why does copyright need to last Life Plus 50 for artist works or 75 years for corporate works in Canada and most of Europe and Life Plus 70 for artist works or 95 years for corporate works for the United States of America and Germany? The original term of 25 years is more than long enough now to profit from created works.

    If you want more profit then the solution is quite simple, create more works. Now there are a lot of one-hit wonders and greedy corporations that would argue against such a concept but the truth of the matter is that was the ENTIRE purpose of copyright law to begin with. Its limited nature is what made copyright work. It’s limited nature is what made copyright benefit all of society instead of just the corporate elite.

    We need to return back to the basics. Copyright law has to be completely scrapped and rebuilt with it’s original goal as the only goal in mind and this has to be set in stone, immutable for all time. We have to establish as a fundamental truth that the purpose of copyright is not profit. The sole purpose of copyright is to increase the number of works in the Public Domain. Period. Profit is strictly the means of copyright, not the ends.

    Saddly I doubt this will ever happen. The United States is going to bully the rest of the world into accepting their definition of Copyright. The United States is also completely under the control of the multinational corporations and they’ll use their influence to persuade the United States into accpeting their definition of Copyright (who were Sonny Bono’s biggest contributors ? Disney and the church of Scientology, two large corporations that rely on works never falling into the Public Domain to survive). As long as this is the case they’ll keep extending copyrights indefinetly, while telling the people who are supposed to safeguard our rights that an infinite number of finite extensions is technically still a “limited” monopoly.

    Before the 90s corporations had a really easy time convincing governments (who convinced the people) that the Public Domain was evil. Look at communist counties. Everything there was Public Domain. Communist countries are EVIL therefore the Public Domain is EVIL. Post fall of the USSR they’ve had to change that. Luckily for them the world has a new face of evil to replace the stoic image of the KGB goon. Today’s evil is Islam and as fortune would have it Islamic law does not recognize copyright. Once again the old formula still applies, if Islam equals EVIL then Public Domain must equal EVIL too.

    Since not enough people care, not enough people question. Most people arn’t artists. Most people don’t care that the rape of the Public Domain by corporations hurts not only artists but everyone in a free society. Most people are too concerned about the trivial matters of day to day life to even be aware of what’s happening around them much less outraged by it. As long as people remain ignorant sheep things will never change. As long as the corporations and the government can convince the population that its for their own good that they remain ignorant sheep things will never change.

    Let’s face it. We’re fucking screwed.

  2. I’ve often thought that, if I won a contest and were made Chief Justice of the World for a day, I’d rule that corporations may not own a copyright, nor anyone but a work’s actual creator; and that that copyright would expire when the creator did. If Roy Disney or Adrian Conan-Doyle want to earn money from an intellectual property, let’em create their own, like Brian Henson.

    Then I’d change US tax law so that both members of a divorced couple could claim their children as deductions.

  3. I don’t think the problem is so much that the general public thinks that the purpose of copyright is to facilitate the creator’s making money, but that they think that copyright protects the creator from others making money off their creations. This belief, though nobly intended, is not strictly true. And essentially indefinite copyright extention does hurt the common good. Lessig’s book Free Culture does a pretty good job of illustrating the arguments and the fallacies surrounding the copyright debate.

    And you’re right. It’s mostly the rich multinational corporations muddying up this argument for their own benefit. Most people who don’t actively create don’t think that copyright law affects them, and this suits the corporations just fine. I don’t know about “ignorant sheep” but, yeah, most people just don’t care. People should understand at least the basics in this debate and how the outcome affects their way of life, but how can you educate a populace who doesn’t even want to learn?

  4. I don’t think the original purpose of a law was matters. What matter is what the purpose SHOULD be. The people of 1790 were no more wiser than we are today, what with slavery being legal back then and all. The copyright laws have evolved over time, and some of the changes are for the better, IMO.
    I think a copyright should last for an artist’s entire life.
    And it doesn’t hurt to extend it past an artist’s death for a set amount of time to help provide for his/her family.

    True, big corporations, like Disney, abuse copyright laws. True, the current copyright law is far from perfect, but going back to the original copyright law is not an improvement nor is it a solution.

    Frankly, I don’t think I’m screwed just because I can’t draw and self-publish a Mickey Mouse comic and legally make money off of it… yet. I guess I won’t really mind until someone tries to extend it over a century. 100 is a nice round number. If I have to wait until I’m 51 to publish “Mickey’s Udder-Lust Christmas Adventure,” I’m OK with that. Though, I could publish it NOW if not for the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act… SIGH. 🙁

  5. I think a copyright should last for an artist’s entire life.
    And it doesn’t hurt to extend it past an artist’s death for a set amount of time to help provide for his/her family.

    Despite my previous comment on this news story, I don’t really have a problem with death-and-a-time-limit … except that it’s the current practice that’s being so horribly abused. One feels compelled to the extreme position on one side since the moderate position equates to the extreme position of the other side.

  6. I still think the original term of 25 years is a hell of a long time in which to profit from a work. It makes no sense what-so-ever either for copyrights to outlast their creators. Why people assume it’s a god given right for decendants to pick at the corpses of their relatives is beyond me. If they want to make a living off of art they can make their own works. I’m certainly not raising my children to sponge off my talent. I want them to make something of themselves for themselves. When I finally kick off this planet all my created works are being willed to the public domain.

    Godwining copyright with slavery is just a wee bit extreme. Just because there were some boneheaded laws in the 1800s that doesn’t automatically mean all laws from that era were boneheaded.

    Profit should only be the means of attaining the true goal of copyright and that goal should always and only be encouraging the creation of more works. When copyright laws are too excessive they stifle creativity, not promote it, and we’re definetly heading towards such a system now where it will be impossible to create anything new for fear of being sued for being too similar to an older work held in perpetual copyright by a corporation.

  7. I don’t see how having the copyright to a book written by someone’s recently deceased parents is sponging off their talent. It’s an inheritence. If I theoritically somehow beat the odds and became rich off of my creation within 25 years (cartoonists, as a rule, generally don’t get rich), it wouldn’t count as sponging off of my talent to leave the money to my children in my will. If I inherited valuable antique furniture from a distant aunt, it wouldn’t be sponging to sell that furniture to help make ends meet. And my children wouldn’t have to have sequels made of my great american novel to make money from it.

    I never called or thought of the original copyright law boneheaded. I just don’t think it’s the most perfect solution we can attain.

    Profit isn’t the only reason people don’t want other people messing with their characters. I doubt the main reason Crumb hated the Fritz the Cat movie was because someone else made money off of it.

    If copyrights should have the purpose of encouraging people to create new works, 25 years is really not long enough. Loose copyright laws can abused in the same way that strict copyright laws can, in that they both would result in newspapers filled with mediocre comics written be cartoonists less talented than the original creators. Peanuts really hit its stride 20-30 years after it started, after all.

  8. I totally didn’t use any break tags before chosing the HTML formatting option!
    I don’t blame anyone who decides not to even bother reading this mess.

  9. I just fail to see much similarity between the expression of an idea and a pocket watch or antique end table.

    As for wether or not you’re able to “get rich” from your creation within 25 years that seems to be assuming you have in inherent right to “get rich”. Artists have no right or entitlement to “get rich” from their work. Some artists simply have no talent and no length of copyright extension is going to allow them or their decendants to “get rich” from the crap they produce.

    As for “keeping other people” from messing with your work. What difference does that make? Eventually, provided corporations don’t steal the Public Domain away from us completely, your works will be freely available to people to “mess with” as they see fit. Better, I think, that this happen while you’re still alive and able to defend your work rather than have it happen after you’re long dead and people can only speculate about how you would feel about the “messed with” version.

    25 years is a pretty damned long time. When you’re 40 years old the works you created when you were only 15 would just be coming into the public domain. Now to corporations which can now live almost indefinetly 25 years isn’t a very long time. It’s been the corporations all along pushing for copyright extensions.

    But let’s say you’re not compitent enough to realize all the profit potential you believe your work is capable of within 25 years. How about 25 years copyright and then a one-time re-registration of the copyright for another 25 years. Now you’ve got 50 years to try and make something of your work. In other words, the crap you produced when you were only 20 which embarassed the heck out of you later in life when your talent matured will be protected when you’re the ripe old age of 70 if you felt it was worthy enough of a copyright extension.

    I still say 25 years is plenty long enough.

    Consider that I could create a medicine that saves millions of lives and the patent on that medicine will only give me a 20 year monopoly, doesn’t it seem rather arrogant and presumptuous of me to assertain that some doodle of mine on a scrap of paper is more worthy of a longer lasting monopoly? It’s all a matter of perspective.

    There’s a very real reason why patents are such limited monopolies and there’s a very real reason why copyrights work better for a society if they are limited as well.

    As it currently stands copyrights are, in reality, permanent. The corporations have paid the politicians to pass laws that make an infinite number of finite extension is technically limited. It was bad enough in the 80s when “look and feel” made it possible for corporations to do an end run around what used to be the fact that copyright couldn’t be applied to an idea, only the expression of it. Now they’ve made it possible to own an idea forever.

  10. Whoa, whoa. Artists have no right to “get rich” from their work?
    Anybody has the right to “get rich” off of anything as long as it’s by legal means.
    That’s how capitalism WORKS.

    As for the copyright issue, we’re both starting to repeat ourselves, so let’s just forget about that.

  11. Whoa, whoa. Artists have no right to “get rich” from their work?
    Anybody has the right to “get rich” off of anything as long as it’s by legal means.
    That’s how capitalism WORKS.

    Anybody has the right to try to “get rich” under capitalism. After that, there aren’t any guarantees. Success is a privilege to be earned, not a right. The Declaration of Independence asserted the right to “the pursuit of happiness”, but not to happiness itself, and it’s the same with success.

    And that’s another reason why copyrights expire, or ought to expire. As not only I have previously written in this discussion, if your blood or corporate heirs want to make money off an intellectual property they damn well ought to have to create their own just like you did. That’s what’s fair – to you, to the public domain, and to your lazy heirs.

  12. Everyone has the right to try to get rich from their work. Nobody has the right to get rich from their work. Nobody.

    After all as the Declaration of Independence says:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    Note it’s “pursuit of Happiness” and not just “Happiness”. You have no right to be happy, just the right to pursue happiness. Likewise you have no right to be wealthy just the right to pursue wealth. But, just because you have the right to pursue something that doesn’t mean you have the right to pursue it at the expense of others.

    So yes, no artist has a right to get rich. You can’t go to court and sue because you’re poor.

  13. D’oh! I should have read your reply before posting mine as you’ve pretty much said the exact same thing.

  14. See, you’re assuming that if artists have the right to be rich that automatically means that someone else has the obligation to make sure that it happens for them.

    Notice that the declaration of independence doesn’t say we have “no right to happiness” either. The police aren’t going around arresting people just for being happy.

    But now we’re just arguing semantics, so I’ll shut up.

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