Petition Surfaces to Restore Copyright Term to 28 Years in US

One of the many flaws of copyright is that the term is, as far as most people who are living when that work is created are concerned, it’s effectively indefinite. One petition that is circulating right now is hoping to change that. The petition is asking for 25,000 signatures to restore the term of copyright back to the original 28 years. The petition is only just over 24 hours old and has earned more than 2,000 signatures.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

The petition is available on the whitehouse government website. As of this writing, it has currently earned over 2,000 signatures. The petition reads as follows:

Our Founding Fathers established an initial copyright duration of 28-years, but that has been repeatedly extended to up to 120 years to favor corporations like Disney and Sony and authors’ descendants at the expense of the public. Such durations ignore the Constitution’s requirement that copyrights be for limited times and promote progress in science and the useful arts. They actually inhibit scientific progress by restricting the free flow of information, preventing global digital libraries, and withholding information that future generations need to freely exchange and build upon. The original copyright duration provides ample incentive for companies and authors to create, so we ask the President to urge Congress to pass a bill restoring copyrights to their original duration of 28 years.

This is an excellent idea. The length of copyright has been extended for way too long. While some companies argue that it’s to benefit the future generations of the original creator, I think many people know that this is simply a case of large multi-national corporations exploiting the creators work long after the creator has died to maximize profits all the while investing as little as possible to create anything new and original.

Lawrence Lessig wrote a book on this subject and detailed the fact that creativity always builds on the past. I can’t think of an example in contemporary times when that is not true given that everything has a reference, a lesson, a style, a sample, etc. to something that was created beforehand. Works that existed before aren’t just dead and gone, but rather, can provide the building blocks to new and more creative works for the present. While Lawrence Lessig thought of this several years ago, he is far from the first to have observed this.

For the earliest example I am aware of, we have to start digging into romantic literature (no, it’s not romance, we’re talking about a literature movement from the 18th century. One known romantic author goes by the name of Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) who, I have to admit, had some interesting theories. The essay that I had the opportunity to read goes by the name of “The Four Ages of Poetry” published in 1820 (which can be read here). You can read some notes on this here.

The four ages, simply put, are the iron age, the golden age, the silver age and the brass age.

The iron age is an age where creativity and intellectual activities is confined to superstition and tales of the warriors. While highly original, it was hardly refined.

The golden age is described as an age where kingdoms rise and poetry is refined. During this time there are the great poets such as Homer and Aeschylus that wrote their work, symbolizing the greatest intellectual achievements.

The silver age is when originality begins to fade. Unlike the golden age, the silver age contains only some originality. The rest of the content that is produced is simply modeled after the great poets from the golden age.

The brass age is where all originality is lost. While there is effort to regain what was achieved in the golden age, the efforts always prove fruitless and is simply mere echos of the past. From Peacock’s essay:

This is the second childhood of poetry. To the comprehensive energy of the Homeric Muse, which, by giving at once the grand outline of things, presented to the mind a vivid picture in one or two verses, inimitable alike in simplicity and magnificence, is substituted a verbose and minutely-detailed description of thoughts, passions, actions, persons, and things, in that loose rambling style of verse, which any one may write, stans pede in uno, at the rate of two hundred lines in an hour. To this age may be referred all the poets who flourished in the decline of the Roman Empire.

While this was written in the 18th century (and the language makes this quite painfully obvious), I think these ideas have proven quite timeless. It’s the idea that creativity died years ago and we merely live in an era where creativity depends on how existing works are used (whether deliberately or accidental/unknowingly), chopped up, imitated or transformed (or, to use the more popular term of today, “remixed”).

Unfortunately, copyright in its current form in the US behaves as if we live in an era of complete and total originality. It’s as if we live in an era of complete and total originality, but it’s painfully obvious to anyone who has invested serious time in creating original works know that this is far from true. The only originality that you can possibly find may be right when a new form of technology is created (i.e. the creation of the motion picture) and even then, chances are, ideas from other forms of media are likely to have been used.

I think it’s time copyright laws actually reflected the era of today. The only entities such long copyright terms (in the US, it’s life plus 70 years) are, more often then not, large multi-national corporations. It doesn’t benefit society when copyright terms are so long. It merely chokes off what little creativity is left in this world.

It’s long past time that copyright laws should allow for real creativity. 28 years is ample time for creators to get paid. When the work falls into the public domain, that allows new creators to actually use those works as building blocks for the next great song/film/etc. Whether or not this petition could realistically restore the original term of 28 years is probably an incredibly big long shot though. Still, there’s nothing wrong with wanting something in the first place.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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