One of the issues important to the authors of the Constitution is copyright. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution says, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” What this basically says is Congress can enact laws establishing copyrights and sets out guidelines for what they should be. But does our current copyright law really follow the spirit of these guidelines?
It certainly protects the author. Current U.S. copyright law, written in 1976 and amended in 1998, allows authors, their employers, or even companies, to copyright their work. This means they are given the exclusive right, with some exceptions, to reproduce, distribute, perform, display and create derivative works of the copyrighted material. Not only that, but the copyright lasts until 70 years after the authors death, or, in the case of a copyright by a company, 75 to 95 years after the copyright was first obtained. After that time, if the copyright is not extended, it falls into the public domain. In 1992 the need to renew the copyright every 28 years was removed.
This means if I, at 22 years old, copyright something tomorrow, then die when I’m 72, whoever my heir happens to be will still hold that copyright for another 70 years, coming to a total of 120 years before the copyright would expire. Not only that, but they can also extend the copyright when it expires. While the Consitution says a copyright should only last for a limited amount of time, this ability to extend a copyright basically allows a copyright to last forever.
It does not seem like how the writers of the consititution meant for copyright to work. What they had in mind was to encourage the creation of artistic works. They wanted to encourage artists by allowing them alone to reap the benefits of their labor, and I’m all for that. One of the best feelings in the world is being recognized for doing hard work. But our current copyright law goes beyond that.
An excellent illistration of this is in the book “About A Boy” by Nick Hornby. The main character, Will Freeman, lives off of royalties from a Christmas song his father wrote. Freeman has never had a job, never had to really work in his entire life, and yet he lives a life far more comfortable than some people who work two jobs.
While fictional, this clearly illustrates the problem with the current copyright law. It is no longer an artist profiting from their labor, it is people who did nothing profiting from their labor. It eventually has to be if it lasts 70 years after the artist dies. Is that really what was intended? Is that really in the public interest?
Some measure of public use of copyrighted material has been shaped in the form of certain exemptions. The most well known, and most used, is fair use. Based on the concept of free speech, fair use allows some use of copyrighted materials for things like schools and scholarly journals. Fair use also allows for criticism and parody of copyrighted material.
But this really doesn’t go far enough, especially for artistic creations that have entered the realm of popular culture. Imagine how many more creative works we would have if people were more directly allowed to use creations like Mickey Mouse.
Instead of a copyright possibly lasting forever, doesn’t it appeal more to the public interest for a copyright to last until the author dies with no extensions? This allows the author to profit from their creation for their entire life, but still allows the public free access to the work much sooner, allowing us to further develop our culture. Shouldn’t we consider when a law has been written in the public interest anad when it has been written in the interest of those looking to profit from someone else’s work?