Fixing Copyright: My Proposal

January 15th, 2009 Posted in Rants

I am an artist.  I make music, take photographs, design webpages and pretty much just loving creating stuff.  I appreciate that the United States has such a generous copyright law, one that protects artists for a very long time.  However, as a person that enjoys “collage art”* and produces art sometimes culled from other works of art, I realize that the current state of copyright law protects not the artists (in most cases) but the corporate entities that now “own” the original copyright.

* By “collage art”, I don’t necessarily mean pictures cut out of a magazine and glued to a posterboard.  I would say collage art is new art created out of old art, including, but not exclusively, the above example, hip-hop records that sample old R&B & Funk tunes, sculptures made from old doll parts, etc.

Current U.S Copyright law give basically two lengths: Author’s life plus 70 years, or on works for hire and anonymous works, 95 years from publication or 120 from creation, whichever is less.  This is beyond insane, and does not just protect the author’s rights, but the rights of the author’s heirs, and the author’s heirs’ heirs.  It keeps corporately owned works under corporate control for a century.  This is allows entities to profit on material that was created long, long ago, and promotes the hoarding of intellectual property.

So how can we fix this?  Here are my suggestions.

1. Set the base copyright length to 20 years.  This is just a base, and can be altered, as I’ll further explain.

2. Author owned copyrights can be extended after the 20 year period, indefinitely, as long as the author is alive.  Extensions would come in 5 year increments and would require a non-insignificant fee (say $1500 for a five year renewal, which works out to a little less than a dollar a day).  Basically, if the work is still profitable after 20 years, it should be able to cover the cost of the fee.  If it’s not profitable enough to cover the fee, there is no loss to the original artist when it enters the public domain.  This way, the Rolling Stones can still earn money off of “Brown Sugar”, while Gertrude Behanna’s “God Isn’t Dead” would lapse into public domain.

3. Corporate control of copyrights cannot be renewed, and cannot exceed 20 years (which is closer to how patents are observed).

4. If an author dies within the 20 year period, the author’s heirs would assume control of the copyright for the remainder of the 20 years, but would not receive extension privledges.

5. If a public domain work is used, for profit, within 40 years of creation, the original author, if still alive, is entitled to a portion of the PROFIT from the sales of the derivative work.  There are few ways that this can be regulated, either by a flat usage fee (which would seem to be the easiest way) or a more complicated percentage basis.  The fee should not exceed 25% of the profit gained.*  After 40 years, the work would be royalty free (if in the public domain).

* #5 is a loose idea, and I don’t like the thought of using a percentage system, as it encourages people to lie about the profits gained from the material.  A nominal fee for usage in commercial works seems like an easy to implement system, and the fees could be tiered based on how much of the original work is used (aka a small loop of the bassline from the intro of “Under Pressure” would be less than selling the entire film “E.T.”, uncut).

As with any proposed revamping of the copyright system, there are going to be winners, and there are going to be losers.  In my opinion, more importantly, there would also be “nothing lost, nothing gained” folks. So who wins, who loses and who’s even stevens?

-Derivative works producers (DJs, VJs, Hip-hop artists, found object artists)
-The public (increased public domain works means more media for people to discover.  Some have labeled this as an increase in “culture”)
-Artists of no longer profitable material (as this would create an easier way for them to receive royalties in the case of a derivative artist using their created works)
-Companies producing out-of-print back catalogs and creating new compilations (there would probably still be value in making these works available to people, even though the works themselves are in the public domain, much like the $1 copies of Nosferatu that you can find at Walmart and dollar stores)

-Corporate entities with control of large older catalogs
-Heirs and heirs’ heirs of artists

Even Stevens:
-Profitable (living) artists (Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner)

Basically, the only parties that lose under a new system like this are people that had no hand in creating the original works, and in my opinion, they shouldn’t be protected by copyright laws anyway.

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