26 May 2010

How They Stole the Public Domain

Part of the quid pro quo of copyright is that works are supposed to enter the public domain after a limited period of monopoly protection. Trouble is, the copyright maximalists and their friends in power have managed to keep jacking up that period, meaning that more and more of our cultural heritage is locked away for decades, released only long after the death of the author.

Rufus Pollock has now quantified how much we are losing:

if copyright had stayed at its Statute of Anne level, 52% of the books available today would in the public domain compared to an actual level of 19%. That’s around 600,000 additional items that would be in the public domain including works like Virginia Woolf’s (d. 1941) the Waves, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (pub. 1951) and Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (pub. 1981).

For comparison, in 1795 78% of all extant works were in the public domain. A figure which we’d be close to having if copyright was a simple 15 years (in that case the public domain would be a substantial 75%).

Imagine what today's artists could have done with free access to all those works: it's not just the past's creativity that's been stolen, but the present's too.

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Crosbie Fitch said...

Well, some might say that wasn't the quid pro quo at all. It was more "Ok, ok, you can have your monopoly back, and this time it'll be statutory, but only because I, Queen Anne, say so, and only because this gives me leverage over you, to ensure you behave yourself and don't publish anything seditious or otherwise offensive to me. 14 years should do for starters. We'll use the pretext that this deal between us encourages the learning of my subjects."

So it's more 'monopoly in exchange for state control of the press'.

And that's what we see again with the Digital Economy Act: 'Ability to censor websites and excommunicate anyone on suspicion of infringement in exchange for corporate/state control of the Internet'.

Incidentally, a published work enters the public domain by definition. Copyright's term simply determines how long the public's cultural liberty to copy/share, perform, and build upon the work is to be suspended (as a consequence of the monopoly granted by Queen Anne). We are supposed to be thankful that the public is still at liberty to learn from the work (that, as myth has it, would not be published, but for the monopoly of copyright).

Anyway, the important thing to note is that Queen Anne didn't have the liberty of her subjects to exchange in a bargain with the Stationer's Guild in the first place. She had the power to make the bargain, but that didn't make it right.

The people are beginning to notice, and they want their cultural liberty back.

Glyn Moody said...

@Crosbie: you're right, of course...

Let's hope that people are indeed beginning to notice...