Lawrence Lessig is one of my new heroes. I just finished his book Free Culture, and it is excellent. Basically, the book discusses how copyright law is stifling creativity. At one point in our history, a copyright was valid for less than 20 years. Now, people are holding copyrights that extend before the Great Depression. And material created today will have valid copyrights for almost 100 years. Lessig is not arguing that copyrights are bad. He argues that, at some point, copyrighted material is no longer financially worth holding on to. Yes, Mickey Mouse and some other copyrighted material from 80 years ago still has value, but they are in the minority. Why should an artist or filmmaker or musician have to constantly worry about violating a copyright that might not have any financial value to the holder? It is ridiculous. Most people do not have the legal power or money behind them to clear the copyrights. That leaves the ability to be creative and borrow from existing sources strictly in the hands of the rich. You might say that people should have their intellectual property protected and should receive compensation for all derivative works including their copyrighted material. In some ways, that is true, but Lessig illustrates a number of stories where the people that want to continually extend their copyrights today initially borrowed from other sources in their beginnings. For example, many of the classic movies from Walt Disney were derived by stories written by the Brothers Grimm. Why shouldn’t we be able to borrow from others and make derivative works? Most of what the copyright holders want to block is piracy. In other words, the illegal reproduction and distribution of their work. It is agreed that is bad, but what about the kid who uses a clip from Lost in his school project? Or, the artist who uses an image from McDonalds in his artwork? Or, what about the hip-hop musician who samples the voice of Sly Stone? Or, the girl creating a fan page about Justin Timberlake on her web site? At some point, fair use has to come in play.
Lessig mentions this in his book, but I’m a big proponent of two things. First, people should need to register their copyright every few years. If the holder does not pay a fee or register their work, it becomes part of the commons for everyone to use. It only makes sense. Copyrights should not be extended infinitely. Also, people should look into Creative Commons licensing. I use it with the work I put up on the Internet. Basically, you attach different creative licenses to your work without protecting it to the point of litigation. You allow people to use it in certain ways while still holding some rights. To me, that is a win-win situation.