Mismatch

2006-02-03

U.S. law stipulates that for works produced after March 1, 1989, the copyright ends 70 years after the death of author. Think about that: if you're, say, 30 years old today and expect to live to age 90, anything you place under copyright will not pass into the public domain until the year 2136 (unless the U.S. Congress pulls another Sonny Bono, in which case it might be 2186 or more).

Am I the only one who finds this state of affairs paradoxical? If any works deserve perpetual copyright, it is the foundational works of human culture: Homer, Sophocles, Euclid, Aristotle, Confucius, Shakespeare, Newton, and the like. But those works are all in the public domain. It is the feverish production of today that will never pass into the public domain. Yet life changes ever more quickly, so that the code or text you write today will likely be quite out of date in five or ten years; forty years from now the Singularity revolutions might have already occurred, leading our ephemeral ejecta to be completely obsolete; and in one hundred years all bets will be off. Yet most of our blogs and code projects and essays and such will still be locked up under copyright protection. Is there not something wrong with this picture?

Yes, I understand the argument that ideas are becoming more important all the time (we've moved from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy) and that therefore ideas require greater protection; but it's also true that ideas are changing more rapidly all the time. So it strikes me that, given the tremendous pace of change today, copyright and patent terms deserve to be shorter than ever, not to be increased willy-nilly by legislators who are beholden to Disney, Warner Brothers, and their ilk.

Naturally, you can avoid gumming up the works for 120+ years by placing your creative output directly into the public domain. But I recognize that's a solution few creative people will embrace because it seems so scary to give up control over what you've produced. I think I'll entitle my forthcoming essay on the topic "Who's Afraid of the Public Domain?"...


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal