02 September 2009

Copyright Reform Made Easy

As readers of this blog will have noticed, I'm not a big fan of intellectual monopolies like copyright or patents. For the former, I'd prefer a return to the original term of 14 years, or even less. But even I recognise that this is not going to be easy to achieve in the short term, so until there's an outbreak of mass sanity, we need a stopgap solution.

I was reminded of what that might be by the following post on Techdirt about orphan works:

the real shame is that the whole reason we need an orphan works bill in the first place is due to how screwed up copyright law has become since switching from a "formalities" approach to one where everything is automatically covered by copyright. Under the old system (pre-1976 Act in the US), in order to get a copyright, you had to register, and then at certain points, re-register it, to have and keep it covered by copyright. Thus, any such "orphan" works fell into the public domain after a short period of time -- and it worked fine. There was no "orphan works" problem, because those works that no longer that weren't being used for commercial purposes went into the public domain in a relatively short period of time. The most amazing thing, though, is that very few of those supporting orphan works legislation seem to recognize that the whole "problem" is one they made themselves by extending insanely long copyrights to pretty much everything.

At the time, I imagine one of the arguments against the system of re-registration was that it was cumbersome. But thanks to the wonders of the Web, such a system would be trivial to use: works could be registered online, and re-registered just as simply. It would take less than a minute. And to those who argued that even that was too much trouble, I'd suggest that the copyright clearly isn't really worth having.

In a way, it's self-selecting: if the copyright is still valuable, then copyright owners won't mind spending a minute renewing it every few years (I'd suggest every 14). If it isn't worth renewing, it will fall into the public domain. Those worried about "losing" their valuable copyright won't - because if it's so valuable they will renew it. So the only works that enter the public domain are the ones that no one cares enough about.

Of course, this is only a sticking-plaster solution, rather than a real fix, but it would avoid the absurd situation we have today of millions of works that are "protected" - that is, blocked - by copyright, with no one taking an active interest in them. And it would start to get away from the pernicious notion that everything comes with copyright by default: monopolies should be the exception, not the rule.

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