Let’s Grow Project Gutenberg! And, yeah, Disney can Keep Their Money Too

My ideal envisioning of copyright law is that only things that content creators actively want to keep protected by copyright should be kept under copyright. That seems only logical. Why not have copyright come up for renewal every five or ten years, and put the onus upon content creators (or content owners) to have an active role in maintaining possession of copyright?

One fair argument I’ve heard in response to this is that some content creators may not be able to pay for copyright to be renewed. To which I argue: why not make copyright renewal free? The argument is fair on the basis that we assume it costs an undue amount to renew copyright. But currently, there’s no reason for that to happen. Right now, copyright is automatic and immediately instated for life plus seventy years. That funding doesn’t exist in the first place. We would simply be adding an extra step to the process on the part of the content creator.

If this compromise were made, all the content that is now considered “orphaned” would be available to the common public. Content creators that had an active investment in their past work would still retain their copyright and continue to be able to monetize their creation, but the default state would be that lapsed content entered the public domain. In this ideal scenario, if the Disney corporation wanted to hold onto Mickey Mouse, they should be able to renew that for as long as they like. The corporations win, the public wins – all is fair.

Right now, copyright law is slowly becoming arbitrary. Every time Mickey Mouse butts up against the threshold to the public domain, Disney throws dollars behind pushing the extent of copyright law out further. Eventually, the theory behind copyright law having an expiration will erode. To prevent this, we need to envision a completely restructured copyright law. What are the interests of the two conflicting parties? Content owners and creators want any and all economical gains from their products. Users want uninhibited use of the content they consume. There are complex, intricate ways that each of their desires positively affects the other, but when it comes down to it, the best compromise is to make the party benefiting from the monetization of a product responsible for its continued security under copyright law. In practical terms this means that if a publisher has taken on the rights of an author’s book (or a character has become the property of a movie production company) that company then has the ability to act as an extension of the content creator’s life. As a future publisher, I believe that the “long tail” will not be hindered should the publisher choose to continually renew its backlist. And if they want their books to enter the public domain? Perhaps there’s some wisdom to that too.

The practical issue that arises with this solution is that then every single piece of content ever created and monetized will now have to be filed, like it was in the beginning. What I am proposing essentially goes back to the original intention of copyright – short periods of copyright, with options to renew once – with the exception that content owners could renew indefinitely. If that function was already set up back in the earliest days of copyright in the United States, then surely it can be replicated again today.

And the biggest benefit of this, of course, is that all that murky gray area that surrounds what’s covered under copyright and what isn’t is gone. Millions of works will enter the public domain and be accessible to more people around the world. Derivative works can be created. And who doesn’t need more She’s The Man? 

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