Can it really be true that farmers are being prevented from repairing their tractors by the operation of copyright? TorrentFreak tells us it is so, and in May NPR’s On the Media had a segment on it. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are arguing that the monkey in the photos at Wikipedia is actually the copyright owner as he/she took the photo as a selfie. (I hesitate to reproduce the photos as their copyright status is obviously in dispute, but they are these at Wikipedia.) David Smith at The Scholarly Kitchen discusses the case, reaching as far as the possibility that the satellite taking photos of the earth might be ruled copyright owner. It is also being argued that photos of earth from satellites are in fact not copyrightable as they contain no creative element.
The problem with copyright is that it has grown and grown so that it now covers so much more than was imagined in the time of good Queen Anne when a book was a book, a painting was a painting, a map was a map and so on. One can just about see the commonality between Iversen: The uptake and storage of noradrenaline, Godfrey and Siddons: Four-figure mathematical tables and the latest James Patterson novel, though in terms of copyright “value” they represent a wide range of earning power. But there’s really very little in common between Disney’s Snow White and the seven dwarfs and the aforementioned noradrenaline monograph, yet they are both protected by the same mechanism: copyright. While Professor Iversen doubtless labored long and hard to write his book, he did it on what isn’t even discernible as a shoe-string when set next to the budget for a Disney, or any other, movie.
This video by C. G. P. Gray (linked via The Digital Reader) gives a whimsical run through copyright’s history and shows how it’s all about companies now.
The trouble, to my mind, is that the copyright law is trying to cover too many bases. Obviously the interests of the Disney Company, for whom the Millennium Copyright Act was served up by Sonny Bono, are rather different from those of an academic seeking to quote a colleague’s work. Of course corporations have been claiming copyright for years: many university presses routinely “buy” the copyright from the author. But it’s the corporatization of things that makes for the big problems — when there’s lots of money at stake. One of the stranger recent phenomena was the news that Lawrence & Wishart, the long-established left-wing publishers of Marx and Engels, have been causing trouble with permissions because they want to keep the market clear for their own digital edition of these texts. The idea of property rights and Marxist writings is of course only odd on first examination. If the workers can’t get their just rewards how will they ever manage to improve their lot? This piece from Politico Magazine tells of copyright control slightly closer to home than Mickey Mouse: the estate of Martin Luther King seems intent on controlling the image of MLK, using copyright as a weapon. The Digital Reader warned us on New Year’s Day of the books which wouldn’t be going into the public domain in USA, though they did in Europe, but would have under any copyright system that wasn’t rigged in favor of big business. They include Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Our Man in Havana, The Once and Future King.
Now we live in a world where the ultimate good is what’s good for business, so any thought that we will be able to get the corporation out of copyright law is just a non-starter. The best we can hope for is a separation of protection — and given our money obsession, it would probably be best to measure the breakpoint as the cost of production, which in the case of books might include copyediting and design, and should also factor in some method of measuring the author’s time-investment. If it cost more than say $100,000 to create — maybe it should get protected one way, while less expensive projects, including most books, might be protected by some other mechanism. If Disney insists on having the word copyright for their kind of protection, let’s let them have it, and call ours something else, like author’s right or something similar. An alternative method of controlling this copyright bloat might be (now that the Supreme Court has decreed in the Citizen’s United judgement that a corporation is in effect a person for the purposes of political free speech) that corporation-owned copyrights could be eternal, while copyrights owned by flesh-and-blood people would have a 28 year (or whatever) term. Of course there’d be a lot of sorting out to be done if we chose this route. Many copyrights to small projects are owned by publishers already, and some massive sorting out would probably have to take place before such a change could take effect.