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A Few Thoughts on Copyright - Packbat's Journal
Friday, May. 25th, 2007
10:23 am
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A Few Thoughts on Copyright

I, Robin Hamilton Dickerson Zimmermann of Silver Spring, Maryland in the United States of America, henceforth declare, until such time as I may choose otherwise, that all works I create for which own the copyright shall be released to the public domain after twenty-eight years, save where I make a specific exception or where a contractual agreement into which I willingly enter states otherwise.

A couple days ago, as I was browsing Project Gutenberg, I was startled to discover that several of H. Beam Piper's stories are available and in the public domain. I was amazed at this for one simple reason: almost nothing published after 1923 is in the public domain in the U.S.

Let me say that again for emphasis. Almost nothing after 1923. This is a travesty.

In 1841, one Thomas Macaulay spoke at long and eloquent length against an extension of copyright to a mere sixty years after the author's death. (Current U.S. law grants seventy.) I thought for a moment to excerpt an especially appropriate sentence or two from these speeches, but a moments' reading left me near quoting the entire thing – I shall instead merely bulletize the most salient points, leaving off Macaulay's erudite prose:

  • The copyright is not an innate right, but a creation of human government.
  • A copyright is a form of monopoly, and therefore effectively a tax on the public – thus, it should be restricted to precisely as long a term as would make equivalent the harm done to the public by monopoly and the good provided by encouraging the creation of new works.*
  • The prospect of income from a property a long time after one's death is no incentive whatsoever to the creation of new works.
  • The probability that the persons for whom the author might have concern will own the copyright a long time after one's death is minute.
  • The probability that the copyright owner might suppress the works, for whatever reason, is great.

The passage of a hundred and sixty-five years has not changed these facts. (A hundred and sixty-six, now, but the temptation to point to various modern personages making the same points could not be resisted.) The fact that the word "copyright" makes the privilege sound inalienable has no bearing. These long terms of copyright encourage speculation by people rich enough to afford it, and actively suppress innovation by preventing the use of what has already been created. (Remember: someone had to invent the idea of alphabetizing.)

I don't know why H. Beam Piper failed to renew his copyrights. The fact that these expired after twenty-eight years as a consequence is a mere coincidence of U.S. law. But it's a good thing that, say, Omnilingual is in the public domain now – the story is historically significant. And if, somehow, anything I make matters the way that did, I'd want no less for it.

Edit: Making Light has another post on intellectual property that links back here – highly recommended reading. Also: anonymous comments are now open, but something's funky with Livejournal's comment notification system, so I might not reply right away. Gmail address is robin.zimm if you want to contact me directly. Blue arrow for replying, or click here.

Edit 2: Chris Sullins has spotted an important error in Point 2, indicated – the intended statement was that the law should equate the marginal harm and marginal good.

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