14 years – Optimal copyright term

Copyright, originally uploaded by Andrea Cassani.

It is just as well that for Ptolemy III that there was no equivalents to the RIAA or the MPAA wandering around in 240 BC. He passed a decree that all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls in their possession, these writings were copied by official scribes and placed into the Library of Alexandria. Can you imagine the amount of infringement notices that they would be issuing, though he might have argued that it was his teenage son, Ptolemy IV, who had issued the decree because he had a P2P (Pyramid to Pyramid) installed.

What ever machinations went on behind the scenes the result, the library, became the most famous in the world, so we have one example, albeit an old example about how copying other peoples work can have a positive effect on society.

Nowadays we have copyright laws and they are meant to preserve the right of the artist and motivate them to produce art by guaranteeing a means of generating an income once it gets released to the public, but not the public domain.

However the rules and laws have been so upsurdered that it is hardly the artists that are rolling in the money, they are given a bit, but it is these massive media organisations that thrash people all over the world with copy right law pulling down royalties. In the US it runs for nearly 70 years after the authors death. I have covered this in a previous blog entry: copyright and tipping.

It is an insane situation, the poor old patent world only get 25 year dibs on making an invention successful and exacting any royalties they can. The CD patent expire a few years ago but not before it made a lot of money for Philips which had a virtually exclusive ownership, with Sony, on the CD patent. Technical companies, somehow, which are limited to patent law and its 25 years limit mange to stay in business and turn a few meager billion or so a year.

So it was quite refreshing to see a paper claim that the optimal copyright term currently is 14 year. This takes in to consideration the amount of time it takes to pay the artist and pay off all the costs associated with producing the content. This figure apparently will go down as distribution channels move over to digital means.

Imagine what this would mean, the top selling album of 1993, 14 years ago, was The BodyguardWhitney Houston. At the end of this year it would enter the public domain and you could re-record your own version and go on to be as big a star as Whitney was, piece of advice watch your yourself on the way down, she isn’t looking so crash hot anymore….

Here is the list of the other great songs and albums which would be getting freed up.

I don’t believe we will ever see a more sane application of copyright law in our life time, but the enforced revenue generated will dry up, meaning artist will have to move back to the old school way of earning some cash, get out there and play live. The live experience can’t be replicated.

Copyright and tipping

Copyright is a funny old thing. It enshrines in law the ability to own an idea which is enforceable by legal means. The media some times I feel doesn’t understand how or what copyright is. When the refers to people “stealing” music, thus demonising these criminals they are in fact wrong. The law may still view the people downloading music as criminals it is not for stealing but instead copyright infringement, it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it?

As it stands things covered by copyright law are not allowed to be wholly used in the public domain until the copyright expires. In most of the world the default length of copyright for many works is generally the life of the author plus either 50 or 70 years. What this effectively means is that nothing created in my lifetime will ever become available in the public domain (unless an author died very close to when I was born). In the US this date seams to track with whenever Disneys copyright on Mickey Mouse is about to run out. Every time they get close they lobby to add another 20 years to copyright duration.

There was an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times last week-end detailing an argument for what amounts to perpetual copyright. The piece in some ways blew my mind. The central argument is that the author of the piece, Mark Helprin, believes that the created of intellectual work should be no different than property and the product of the intellectual work can be owned forever, either by the original authors estate or property investors. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a piece like this has been written by a professional writer. There are those of us in the work that the product of our work is a salary, and it behooves us to take the product of that one time work and make it work for us and our families in the future. If the work you do is successful you may gain a bonus, but come 5 or 10 years hence what ever work you did in the past has been forgotten.

The copyright reform community is crafting a reply over at Lawrence Lessig’s wiki. Which they cover the legal aspects and the cultural aspects of this nonsense piece. I have in my wanderings of the internet seen suggestion that it is only a satire but neither Mark Helprine or the New York Times come forward and admitted it.

However the whole thing reminds me of tipping and in particular tipping in America. I have worked on again/off again in America. Tipping like copyright law in America has lost it meaning. Tipping is supposed to be a recognition of an above average job. In most other cultures that is still how it works. This all holds up because the base salary is supposed to be sufficient for the employee. However in America some occupations are now been built around the concept of compulsory tipping, so much so that in the cases of waitresses, their base rate is lower than minimum wage and need to make up the shortfall in tips. So this then leads to a situation where tipping is no longer a reward of above average work but some kind of out of band sales tax. The only effective way to use tipping now is as a punitive measure, a tip is withheld if the service is bad. Tipping in America, especially for non-Americans, is captured well in Reservoir Dogs. Mr. Pink’s rant about been enforced to tip, while probably put in to make him seem weaselly has some very valid arguments :

I don’t tip because society says I gotta. I tip when somebody deserves a tip. When somebody really puts forth an effort, they deserve a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, that shit’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doin their job.

Copyright law runs the risk of becoming as irrelevant. It original purpose was put in place to give artists an incentive to create work, knowing it would return future wealth. But the original length was something more like 25 years from creation of the content. It didn’t even take J.K. Rowlings or Dan Brown that long to become multi-millionaires based on there books. Now that may seem to be a bad example but are there any cases of people becoming successful 25 years after the work has been created? It will more than likely be a success or a failure when it comes out and still the the same success or failure 25 years later. With the exception of J.K. Rowlings, Dan Brown and the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien who really makes money from such hyper extended copyright, corporations like Disney and Time Warner. Does copyright really protect and incentify the content producers? Unlikely since people create and give away content for free on YouTube, Flickr, Blogging etc. It would be nice to have this all cleared up soon, but their lawyers are bigger than mine.