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.
|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 June 23, 2016 and originally published August 20, 2010.