The idea of copyright grew out of a very sensible proposition: If the fruits of labor should belong to the laborer, the fruits of invention should belong to the inventor.
Copyright helped protect creators. Copyright made thinking lucrative. Copyright, rooted in the spirit of the Enlightenment, is akin in spirit to public education: Everyone has the right and the capability to think big thoughts without being completely fucked over by the ruling class.
It’s a very nice concept.
But then, over the years, copyright evolved from a system of protection into a system of ownership. It became extendible and transferable. The time-limited right authors and inventors had to their respective writings and discoveries (these are the constitution’s words, mind you) were lavishly extended to the corporations who employed the creators. What was a 28-year right of creators has become a 120-year marathon of ownership.
Grandsons make huge amounts of money off of their grandfather’s work, a dubious situation for a democracy interested in keeping clear of aristocracy. Companies formerly interested in creating new things are more interested in managing, repackaging and defending all the stuff they already have.
Clever management is more valued than is simply being clever.
Actual creators are left to largely unregulated bargaining between themselves and whatever R&D department or studio they’re interviewing with. If a scientist achieves something grand while on the payroll of a company that’s not hers, she’d better have an excellent contract spelling out what her rewards are. If a screenwriter comes up with a story that’s unrivaled in beauty and light that makes a kajillion dollars over Fourth of July weekend, he’d better make sure he has a rabid army of agents and attorneys working in his best interest (minus 10 percent, natch).
Labor and wits aren’t to be greeted with unlimited reward as Ayn Rand’s objectivists and Rep. Paul Ryan’s conservatives would have you believe—unless that labor and those wits have been primarily focused on dynamic marketing and cobbling together complicated financial instruments. For the overwhelming majority of Americans who are workers in intellectual property, their earnings are limited by how well they read employment agreements. They don’t own their own work and they have little recourse if they’re exploited.
To give you an idea of how many people that is, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claims 60 percent of U.S. exports are intellectual property. That’s a lot of people, a lot of labor and a lot of money. Copyright has now become a bludgeon against people who comprise intellectual and cultural labor.
The sickest part of the joke, however, is that it often doesn’t matter what the copyright law actually says and what the distribution of legal rights really are. Most intellectual property disputes are won by whomever has the most money to throw at a civil suit. It’s not about justice; it’s about being able to exhaust the other guy’s treasury first. In a case between a single person and a corporation, who the hell do you think is going to win nine-tenths of the time?
The cold comfort here is, of course, that the corporate position is simply untenable. It doesn’t take into account that we’re humans.
Take Disney. They want Americans to slobber with love when we see Mickey Mouse’s image but, simultaneously, Disney wants to exercise control over every last appearance of that image. Control of that image must rupture, the law be damned.
Because the time is coming rapidly in this age of remixing and reinventing that we’ll have to make a decision: Either this culture belongs to us, or it doesn’t. Either scholarship is accessible to all scientists, or its movement forward will grind to a halt.
At some point, some ideas become so widespread that it doesn’t matter who owns them. What matters is that it belongs to all of us, that they become part of who we are as a culture, or that the next great leap in knowledge is made in violation of the law. Either our internalization of it makes it ours, or we can’t internalize it. Either our rights as people to interpret our own culture trumps their profit, or we will have to abandon culture that is owned.
What I’m arguing for is a return to a more competitive system of creation: People who own but do not create must forfeit their rights to collect a profit after a reasonable time (and the current copyright limit of 120 years is not a reasonable time). It’s time to put management in its proper place: as a way of protecting creators, not holding them hostage.
We have an inherent right to create new things from what has come before. And then we have the obligation to return it back to where we found it: The hands of other people.