Life is a piece of paper, goes on forever -- Joe Jackson, "Throw It Away"
I have $25. Should I buy two Philip K. Dick reprints or David Brin's new novel Kiln People? I really want the PKD books, which have just returned to print after being unavailable for many years. But if I buy them, then David Brin -- a living, creating author, unlike Dick, who's been dead for two decades -- doesn't make a sale, and has less incentive to continue writing. What should I do?
The cause of my dilemma is U.S. copyright law. Perhaps a quick review is in order.
Original terms of copyright: 14 years, non-renewable. Copyright must be applied for.
Current terms of copyright: for individual authors, works created before 1978 are copyright for 95 years from date of publication; for post-1977 works, the copyright term is life of author plus 70 years. For work made for hire (i.e., for corporations), the copyright term is 95 years. Copyright is automatic.
The purpose of copyright: to promote the useful arts and sciences.
Let's return to the book-buying dilemma. The later of the Dick books was published 1964. Under the original copyrights terms, it would have entered the public domain in 1978. Under current copyright terms, that won't come to pass until 2059 -- 77 years after the death of the author.
This raises a critical question: how is the purpose of copyright served by maintaining copyright on a work after the death of the work's creator? The goal of copyright is to create an incentive for the production of more works. Well, that doesn't make sense any more -- the creator is dead, and isn't going to produce anything new.
Here's another question: is it fair that living, creating authors must compete for scarce reader dollars against an author's estate?
Consider how the situation would differ under copyright's original terms. Dick's novels would be entering the public domain; many would already have been freed. Instead of being unavailable (as they have been for many years), you would find them either in inexpensive editions (due to competition between publishers, each of which would be free to publish an edition) or free on the Internet. I'd be able to buy the reprints and afford a new hardcover Brin book.
Our nations's absurd extensions of copyright are creating a system in which creative works will never be freed into the public domain. They will become property, to be bought sold, or hoarded. We've already established a state in which almost no works will be freed into the public domain for the next two decades. Did we learn nothing from Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron and Roger McBride Allen's The Modular Man? Despite our best efforts we still can't take it with us, but we are doing our darnedest to make sure no else gets it, either.
How did we get to this point? Follow the money. Publishers, the recording industry, and other media companies pushed for (and funded) this legislation. Learn the history of copyright, and read the current debate and legal challenge to copyright extension. Read the law itself. Then do something about it.
As for me -- well, I bought the reprints, but I think I'm going to buy Kiln People too. And I resent being forced to make the choice.
While reading Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture, I was struck by an interpretation of copyright he didn't stress: it's a government service. Historically, copyright holders got a government-backed monopoly on control of their works, but not for free; after a fixed term, the works entered the public domain. However, in the past century the terms of that service have radically changed. The abolition of the requirement to register works for copyright protection, combined with the perpetual-in-all-but-name term of copyrights, means that copyright holders now get a fantastic deal: it costs them nothing for an effectively perpetual copyright monopoly, and the government shoulders the bill. Copyright holders are freeloading on the taxpayers' dime. So I ask: what's in it for us? What benefit does the average person get from copyright law, particularly when copying a single MP3 is a felony that can incur a fine of $150,000? Just what is it we the public get for the taxes we pay for copyright enforcement, when fair use and the public domain have been cut off at the knees?