Copyright Law and Society
With this message I have created a copyright. Should this post become as popular as say a Beatle’s song I could sue for royalties from everyone who forwards it. The copyright on the post lasts 75 years and if I register the copyright it will last as long as 100 years. Even what is in the copyright and what is not is questionable as I can later derive work from this post and extend the copyright.
While Congress is spending millions studying the Drug War, Health Care, the Deficit and a myriad of other issues, the impact of an obsolete copyright law is far greater on society. On the corporate level there is a push to extend copyright, neglecting that most of what we see today on TV or the movies is derived work from historical authors like Shakespeare who then derived much of his work from Greek plays. On the left there are people like Thom Hartman who want to see copyright laws repealed guaranteeing Disney and other movie produces will never make another movie.
Currently, Google is under a legal injunction preventing them from just scanning books that may still be in copyright. There is a better way to sort the current mess. Public domain works have become like the Guttenberg Project and with open source software a valuable resource. With the internet available to the world public domain works spread communication and education. There are many ideas and valuable history wrapped up in out of print works. The Internet exploits these works adding value to society
How much other obscure information becomes valuable when exposed on-line? Like Google the Guttenberg Project cannot put on line thousands of obscure and out of print books because of out of touch copyright laws. In the past a publisher – say of Schumpeter’s Business Cycles — had a motivation not to reprint an out of print book. They had to cover the cost of a minimum printing and this meant warehousing, distribution and promotion costs. Thus many, many books lie fallow, keeping library shelves full and supporting out of print book dealers.
With every change in technology there are winners and losers. Economics generally sorts things out, however government and laws play an important part in making economic value. Without copyright laws the publishing industry would come to a screeching halt. Already the music industry is caught in a bind over internet distribution. Yet there are some simple solutions to this problem.
1. Lower the length of copyright on non-registered works to three to five years. A short time frame would further expand the value of the Internet as a resource.
2. Make registered works re-register every five to seven years.
3. Raise the registration fee to a level that would support an enforcement fund.
4. Define clear penalties for infringement that are high enough to be enforceable but not draconian.
5. Automatically flow the funds from enforced royalties to the registered copyright holder.
6. Allow re-registration of copyrights to enter open bidding with the funds from a high bidder going to the previous copyright holder.
7. Failure to re-register a copyright pushes the work into the public domain.
In effect the holders of registered copyrights would be paying a tax for enforcement just as banks pay FDIC insurance on deposits. As with domain names, all registered copyrights can now be on line. A cottage industry would spring up around bidding for expiring copyrights giving the owner extra bidding power. Fees collected as well as fines support rational enforcement. Fines could be split between copyright holder and the enforcement agency. In bidding for expired copyrights the enforcement agency would get a portion of the bid allowing for legitimate bidding and higher fees on properties with greater potential enforcement costs.
The same could be done with software where in-registration a copy of the code is archived with the licensing agency. On expiration the code would be released on-line allowing users access for bug fixes and modifications again making possible derived works and increasing the economy. When a product is no longer available for sale or supported and has embedded software that software becomes publicly available.
On both sides the consumer and creator are protected. Unregistered works become publicly available much sooner and valuable works of creation take on greater and greater value as they become part of the culture. As things expire each has a chance at increased exposure. Out of print works become easily and readily available adding to the wealth and knowledge of society.