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Should There Be a Limit on Copyrights?

This article was written by in Career and Work. 10 comments.


I have a poll that I’m hoping you’ll take part in. Current U.S. law says that copyrights on most creative works (songs, movies, books, etc.) are valid until 70 years after the author’s death. It used to be 50 years, but when the 50 year mark was approaching, it was extended another 20. There’s no reason why Congress couldn’t extend it again when those 20 years are up, or any other kind of law could be passed between now and then that makes a copyright permanent, or reduces its lifespan.

When a creative work loses its copyright, it falls into the public domain. Example of public domain works include classical music compositions, Jane Austen books, and quite a few movies. The Loony Tunes cartoons from Warner Bros. were enhanced with classical music that Warner Bros. didn’t have to pay for (except for hiring the orchestra). If Pride and Prejudice were not in the public domain, we wouldn’t have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to look forward to, unless of course the author got permission from the Austen estate (which seems unlikely) and paid them significant licensing fees.

If not for the public domain, we also wouldn’t be able to watch the Rifftrax Live performance of Reefer Madness.

We live in an age where copyrights are ignored all the time, and I’d wager that more than 99% of the time, nothing bad comes of it, but that’s not to say people couldn’t get in trouble for things like this (don’t worry, it’s not scary):

There’s a set of precedents commonly referred to as “Fair Use” that say a creative work can be re-used or transformed as long as the re-use is educational, critical, part of a news program, or a parody. I’m not sure the Shining trailer remix is a parody. It doesn’t consist of people mocking the events or characters of The Shining. The story’s actual events and characters are deftly ignored on purpose. It does make fun of The Shining, in a roundabout way… sort of.

I’m fairly sure it’s illegal to remix movie trailers, not to mention use Peter Gabriel songs in them without permission, but isn’t it great when people do it? If the purpose of copyright law is to prevent thievery of profits, or the potential to profit, from a creative work, why wouldn’t a thing like this be fair game? In other words, nobody’s going to watch that video and think, “Well, I don’t have to pay for the DVD now, because I’ve seen this version for free.”

I think the public domain is important, and that old things should fall into it each year, but when I started asking around on Facebook and in the office, I was surprised at the number of people who think a copyright should never expire, and that it should be able to be passed down from generation to generation.

I previously put this poll together, and grabbed a few semi-random numbers. 94 people picked the answer they thought was closest to reasonable.

Poll Results

Should a creative work’s copyright enforcement expire? If so, when?
25 years after the publication date 34%
50 years after the publication date 26%
70 years after the publication date 5%
On the date of the author’s death 11%
25 years after the author dies 11%
50 years after the author dies 1%
70 years after the author dies 4%
It should never expire, it’s like any other possession that can be handed down or sold or given away 9%

What can I say? I wish you guys were Senators. Maybe 25 or 50 years after the publication date is still too soon, but at least we agree that the current law is in the minority.

Updated September 13, 2010 and originally published August 20, 2010. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Freeby50

I really don’t see a need for copyrights to last forever. I think allowing a copyright to last 70 years is just fine. It doesn’t need to last from generation to generation forever, I mean whats the point of that really?

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avatar Apex

We seem ok with patents expiring, why not copyrights, and patents expire much quicker than copyrights.

If you write something down, or paint it, or sculpt it, or record it, you should be able to extract enough value out of it in a 50 year period.

Assets are tangible. Ideas are not assets.

Furthermore copyrights are only valid because the govt enforces them. If they chose not to, someone could copy your work the day you release it. It is only because the govt decides it is a valuable thing to offer its citizens a copyright protection to encourage them to put in the effort to produce the work. A 50 year protection is more than enough encouragement. No one is going to chose not to produce something because they can only profit off of it for 50 years (probably a 25 year protection would also not deter anyone).

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avatar Brer Scientist

People seem to have forgotten the purpose of copyright. It is not to enable the creator of the work to make money. That is the means. The purpose is to encourge the creation of creative works. Here is the text from the constitution “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.”
I don’t think that copyright terms of 50 or 70 years encourages people to write more books, or make more movies.

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avatar mike3

Yes… by giving them the ability to make a profit. If you can’t make a good profit off your stuff in 50-70 years(!!!), then it’d seem _you_ are doing something wrong, and so why should you beg the government for more and more copyright? 50-70 years is a LONG time!

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avatar Peggy

The original term of copyright was FOURTEEN years — in an age before the Internet and instant perfect duplicate copies. I chose 25 years after publication, but sometimes I think that our founders had the right idea and 15 years is more reasonable.

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avatar Smithee ♦1,358 (Quarter)

Just testing.

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avatar Tom Dziubek

Smithee and I discussed this topic before and my take on it is that if I took the effort to create something I should have nearly unlimited rights to it. I would want to benefit as much as I could from it and, if possible, my descendants should be able to do likewise. Frankly, why should the rights of anything I own…physical, or of an artistic nature…be given outright to someone else because a certain period of time has expired?

However, I’m willing to bend a little in this case due to the public consumption/enjoyment of the many things that fall into this category. I voted for “it should never expire” for Smithee’s spreadsheet but I’m also okay with 70 years after the publication date *IF* it allows any people with rights to the item to renew the copyright every 40-50 years or so. While that will allow the creator’s future generations to benefit from it, it will also allow the items of those who have passed on (and who have no heirs) to slip into public domain if there’s no one around to claim ownership.

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avatar Anonymous

If you work to create a product, its yous and should be forever. It should be treated the same as a piece of land you own. No one would ever think of taking your property. Yet intellectual property is different?

No, you created it you own or can sell it if you want. The government is moving in that direction with patents already. Its not fair and not capitalistic.

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avatar Apex

If you create something you do own it. No one can every confiscate the original work. The painting, the sculpture, the manuscript, its yours, you own.

The question is can you prevent someone else from doing it as well.

For instance, if you build a house, you own, but if you were the first person to think of building a house can you prevent someone else from cutting down their own trees and building their own house. It takes the force of government to prevent someone else from reproducing something you have produced.

No one is taking away the rights to what you created. What you are asking is for an outside entity to actively prevent others from reproducing what you have made. I have not heard any argument as to why the government should do this in perpetuity. The argument is often offered as it is here that you own it and should have unlimited rights to it and why should those rights expire. Of course you do own what you created, and those rights never expire. But you are not really asking for that. You are asking for an outside entity to prevent anyone else from duplicating or copying your design or artistic work.

So what do you own that compels the govt to actively prevent others from duplicating it and what is the reason the govt should do that. As I said before, the only reason the govt does this for even 1 day is to encourage the creative work by protecting the creator from those who would copy it. After 50 years have passed what reason does the govt have to protect this from duplication. There is no reason to continue to protect it and in fact the longer they protect it the more they damage the society as a whole by allowing heirs to continue to benefit from something that provides no ongoing benefit by being protected. This is not true of physical assets. If you were to lose your house or your land or your 5 karat diamond ring after 50 years this would drastically reduce what people were willing to pay to get hard assets and would make many people unwilling to participate in the investment and improvement of any hard assets because the benefit from hard assets is selling them later for more than they are paid for.

So the simple question is what do you “own” that should compel the govt to actively protect it from duplication in perpetuity?

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avatar Apex

See comment on Tom Dzuibek’s post. It applies the same.

In short you do own what you created in perpetuity, it just isn’t worth very much because everyone can copy it now. What is not fair about that. Should there be only one person who benefits from anything that has a wheel on it because one person thought it up 5000 years ago? The original produced wheel is his asset for all time. The idea of the wheel is not his for all time and the govt can protect it for whatever time it thinks is necessary to encourage other people to think up other wheel type ideas but to suggest that one person should keep the rights to that idea and have the govt actively prevent anyone else from duplicating that idea for all time is what I would call not fair and not capitalistic.

Produce something and continue to contribute to society and be rewarded. Don’t expect to come up with 1 idea and have your posterity sit on its laurels for the next millenia, that’s not very capitalistic.

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