I’m going to see the new Alice in Wonderland movie tonight, like everybody else, and it looks pretty cool. I like the visual style and the humor seems right u p my alley. But it got me thinking – about copyright. Yeah, you know, like you do.
As an artist, I totally believe artists should make money off their art, and should be credited for what they create. Absolutely! But it also makes me sad that so much of my actual culture is unavailable for me to use, to reimagine or “remix”.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were published almost 150 years ago, in 1865. There have been hundreds of plays, movies, fan sequels, music, and more riffed off of this material. Pretend for a moment that none of that ever existed, because the law said that Charles Dodgson’s estate should continue to control that work forever. Effectively, the theory goes that not only should the artist make money off their creation, but so should their children. And their children. And all of his descendents forever – or, in lieu of relatives, a “trust” or “estate”, effectively a corporation created solely for the purpose of controlling and profiting from the work. Wouldn’t that stink? No Disney movie (well, actually, Disney might have licensed the movie rights anyway… but that’s a different issue), no plays, no millions of editions with different illustrations by adventurous authors.
It sounds a little farfetched, right? But that’s actually the law we have in the US now, only slightly exaggerated for effect. Check this out: The Duration of Copyright.
A relevant summary: “Works created in or after 1978 are extended copyright protection for a term defined in 17 U.S.C. § 302. With the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, these works are granted copyright protection for a term ending 70 years after the death of the author. If the work was a work for hire (e.g., those created by a corporation) then copyright persists for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter.”
Compare and contrast with the original language of the US Constitution: The Congress shall have Power [. . .] 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.
Nothing you like will ever be in the public domain in your lifetime. Dodgson died in 1898. If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had been published under the current copyright restrictions, it would not have been in the public domain until 1968, more than a hundred years after it was published. He didn’t even have any descendents to benefit from this
(On a related note, sometime you should check out the correlation between the increasing length of copyright terms and the expiration of the copyright status of the Mickey Mouse cartoons – it’s almost magical.)
Yeah, I want to make money on my paintings, jewelry, books, and anything else I put my hand to. But I don’t expect my (future) fame and glory to support my entire family and all my descendents til the end of time. Especially not at the expense of all the other artists out there who might be able to make something even cooler out of what I did.
The shared pool of art and experience available to a community for assimilation, reuse, and reimagining used to be called “culture.” Now all that’s left is the “public domain” – the songs your grandparents listened to. Everything else is licensed.
My views on this have been unashamedly influenced by Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig and their much more eloquent defenses of the public domain. I highly recommend you seek out their work for more information.