Saturday, March 05, 2005

Lessig gives a lecture

Lawrence Lessig gives a wonderful speech here that is absolutely worth viewing if you don't already believe that our copyright laws need a serious overhaul. The speech is sprinkled with video clips which makes it more fun to watch.

Essentially, I think (and Lessig wisely follows my lead) that copyright law is a good thing. It encourages the creation of art because the creator knows they have an opportunity to make money. For example, without copyright law, Wal-mart could find good (or popular) books, have them printed in China and them sell them without paying the author a cent. They have a powerful distribution channel and could easily sell more copies of the book than the author could on his own. They would be stealing the fruits of his labor. Copyright stops this from happening, and rightly so.

On the other hand, copyrights that last too long or prevent the reuse of material are bad. They mandate an artificial scarcity of a resource. There is no monetary harm to an author if I make a copy of her work; I will have borne the costs of reproduction. The only harm would be the disincentive to create. I'm told that the original copyright laws gave an author 14 years. That seems entirely reasonable and would preserve a good balance between incentives to create and the natural growth of the public domain.

Lessig gives an example in his speech of a movie that cost a boy a few hundred dollars to create. It sounds like he ran around with a camcorder for a few years and then mixed the clips into a movie worthy of winning an award at Cannes. Further research showed that it would cost this young man over $400,000 to secure the rights to reproduce the songs that were playing in the background in different scenes in the movie. This is a tough case and I'm not sure how I'd come down on it. I lean toward agreeing that the boy should pay the artists for using their music if it goes into a commercial creation. But only music created recently. Trying to track back rights to a song created 70 years ago, for instance, is a barrier to creativity rather than an enhancement.

Let common sense prevail. Let's bring copyright law under control.


Ethan said...

Whatever the laws are and whatever they become (I'm not really up on this topic), I think a creator should be able to collect on his work for his entire life. I would feel bad for someone if they were forced to relinquish copyright to their own work while still alive. Does this happen?

Bradley said...

The current law is the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. Works made for hire last either 95 or 120 years. You can read the details at the government website for copyright.

I feel a tinge of sympathy for Ethan's sentiment here, but feel that goverment (and thus the general public) interest in protecting copyright is only to encourage the creation of works and expand the public domain. Thus, it is in the government's interest to see that people are able to make money from their work, but that they must eventually continue to produce. In this line of thinking, you shouldn't be able to produce a single CD and live off the proceeds the rest of your life. Why not? Because after a certain period of time, it is no longer worth the money for the goverment to try to protect your copyright. As far as the government (and the public) is concerned, it would be better if you produced something new. You're not compelled to do so, of course. The public just refuses to continue to honor the artificial restraint on copying your original work.

Many people think the concept of "Intellectual Property" is flawed. Why? Because you can't actually own an idea. Once you say it, everyone owns it equally as much as you do. If they have the idea as well, you aren't deprived of the right of having it too. Thus, it isn't like real property that can only be had by one person or entity at a time. Let's away with lifetime copyright laws. The absurdly long copyright durations are protections for corporations, not artists and authors.

Bradley said...

Oops. Forgot the link to the copyright website.