Copyright Necromancy

By necromancy I don’t mean the raising of shambling undead as Dungeons and Dragons uses the word but rather the older meaning of the word – the talking to the dead though in this case to see the past rather than future. Contemporary copyright has caught works that would have once entered the public domain in an ongoing stasis. They have become ghosts echoing a past time that become less and less relevant only time. And like a gifted medium they have gatekeepers.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University published a report on things that would have entered the public domain on Jan 1st 2017 in the United States. It’s worth reading:

These would have come into the public domain if not for retroactive copyright. The author points out many great examples of why this is harmful for society but I want to talk just a little about the very idea of copyright and why I think this trend of lengthening it over and over is toxic. I’m not anti-copyright. I actually believe that we should have a strong copyright. People should be able to be rewarded for their labors if it proves to be of value. Also, as a believer in Creative Commons and Open Source, both rely on strong copyright so that rights holders can determine how their works are used. Copyright is a relatively modern concept. Historically most societies didn’t assume that anyone could own something that was immaterial. We do need this concept but we need to normalize it in ways that establish sane values that promote the intent of copyright, not pervert it. The reason copyright was created was to reward creators while balancing the rights of society to re-use intellectual works. In trying to find the right solution to a modern problem we’ve applied so high a dosage of vaccine that we might kill the patient.

The Duke report mentions that cultural and academic harm this causes and the value of being able to freely use and access these documents. All of this is true. But, one place the report skims over is the value in being able to create new works. The report mentions a cross linked digital library of Alexandria but imagine anyone being able to take Sartre’s Critique de la Raison Dailectque and make their own notated edition. Perhaps a hundred college professors do it and that becomes available to researchers. A professor could make a customized edition for their classes at a fraction of the cost of buying a text book.

Imagine a young film maker able to take To Kill A Mockingbird and lift the story and plot to make a modern version set in the Middle East among their conflicts.

Imagine a DJ creating a techno remix of Dr. Seuss books with music.

Imagine anyone able to create a Youtube video of Pscyho with your own commentary track.

It goes on and on. And yes, works get lost in the cracks. In some works the copyright is in doubt. Somewhere rights holders can’t be found. And these are lost.

I know it seems scary and anti-intuitive that something of value that can sell perennially to go into the public domain but that was the very intent of copyright limits. Surely, by now the value of John Updike writing Rabbit, Run is established. If he never saw another dime from it wouldn’t have still been worth his writing? Wouldn’t it still have been worth filming Ocean’s 11?

I think I worry about something different from the Center From the Study of the Public Domain. They write about the unfair monetization of past works and harm lack of use creates. And those are fair concerns. But I’m also a librarian. I know how people look at intellectual works and access them. I know that society tends to have it’s own tolerances and how existing works battle the new for attention.

I grew up with classic stories retold and finding new life. I grew up to recreations of classic works from Shakespeare to Bram Stoker, freely reinvented and reinterpreted. And in many cases these found new life and relevance. New interpretations make the original of new interest. I worry this won’t be true for our children. I worry that classics will give way to ghosts that seem dated and irrelevant unless someone is willing to pay for the rights. We will live in a culture where only the new is relevant and the past inaccessible with fewer cultural milestones that create a common tapestry of stories.

I don’t think society will be improved where something is only of value if it’s hash tag is trending. And those will only be new works. And if that happens copyright will have killed itself and no one will benefit.