ReelThoughts: March 05, 2013

"21st Century Copyrights"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


So, the Pirate Bay is now operating out of North Korea. That rather ironic development represents the latest illustration of a major flaw in the way intellectual property is treated in 2013. Copyright Law was written and developed for another world - a world of typewriters and printing presses. Its current incarnation came into being when books and magazines were on paper, film was on reels, and audio recordings were on vinyl. Existing Copyright Law was never intended to cope with an electronic age and its unwieldiness in this new era is glaringly obvious. The unwillingness of governing bodies to make the necessary changes puts us in a situation where obsolete laws are determining ownership of music, film, literature, and so forth. Why haven't the laws changed? Because corporations have vested interests in keeping the status quo and, when it comes to lobbying Congress, no one has more power than corporations.

I write this from the perspective of someone who owns thousands upon thousands of pages of copyrighted material. Copyright laws "protect" everything I write: reviews, novels, and even this ReelThought. The protection is artificial, however. Since no corporation is making oodles of money from what I wright, no one is going to enforce my rights. If I discover that someone is "unlawfully" infringing upon my copyright (reproducing reviews with attribution but without permission, for example), my ultimate recourse is to sue that entity in court. I might win, but it would cost me a lot of time and money and any damages I received would be minimal. So what's the point?

I don't believe it's possible to do away with copyrights altogether as some would advocate. We don't live in Utopia. There would be no bigger way to disincentivize creativity. Although it's true that may people create out of a love of what they're doing, commerce plays a big part in it as well. Imagine that movies enter the public domain the minute they're finished. They can be copied and distributed legally on-line. You can see a pristine copy without paying a cent. How long until the only films being made are those with shoestring budgets by people who simply want to get their work shown? No more blockbusters. No more spectacles. No more big-budget entertainment. While there's something appealing about that, it's not the way the real world works.

I consider my own writing. I'm in the process of crafting the third book in a fantasy trilogy. About 1050 pages are behind me with another 500 (or so) ahead. It's a mammoth effort. When the project is complete, it will have absorbed about 2 1/2 years of my life. So, when it's published next year (2014), I would like to obtain remuneration for the effort. Beyond that, however, it's hard to deny that perhaps the most gratifying thing about having a published novel isn't the paycheck. It's the knowledge that people are entering the world I have created and coming away enthused by what they find there. Don't misunderstand: I want to get paid but there's an element of satisfaction that isn't attached to the money. If I knew today that I would never make anything from the trilogy, would I complete it? Of course I would. But some of the luster would be taken away. It's not because I expect to become rich from writing books but because I feel I deserve to get something for the 1200+ hours I have invested in this project.

I don't come equipped with a roster of solutions. One idea is that the creator would own exclusive rights over the length of the copyright but reprinting for non-commercial purposes would be allowed after a short period of time has expired. Using my books as an example, assume that the "grace period" might be six months after publication. After those six months, copies of the book could be uploaded and distributed freely without fear of punishment or reprisal. ("Free" is a key concept here.) There's a way this could work in my favor. Some who read the free copy might become so involved in the series that they would purchase Book Two as soon as it became available. We've become an instant-gratification society. For access to the next chapter of the story, some people wouldn't wait.

Quality plays a role here as well. I believe that if people love and appreciate something, they'll pay for it. People who care about ReelViews occasionally click on the ads to show their appreciation. People who love a pirated movie may turn around and pay to see it in a theater or buy a copy of it on DVD. People who love a song will support the artist. People who enjoy the first book of a book series, even if they don't purchase it, may buy the subsequent novels. It seems to me that an unintended consequence of today's copyright laws is that they promote and protect crap.

These are just thoughts, not answers. I haven't come to this ReelThought equipped with a Great Solution that, if adopted, would balance freedom of distribution with the rights of the creator to gain some remuneration from his efforts. To me, the real problem here is that no one in government is seriously looking at these issues. No one with the power to enact legislation is farming the hundreds of possible new copyright alternatives that have been proposed. When government addresses copyright matters, it's to figure out how to "strengthen" the current laws rather than to overhaul them completely. The lack of political will to do this shouldn't be shocking though - who wants to go up against the publishing industry, the MPAA, and the RIAA (among others)?

It's time to stop punishing kids who illegally download a movie. It's time to write laws that protect the rights of an artist without subsidizing corporate greed. I don't know the answers and neither do the lawmakers in Washington. The difference is that I'm open to all sorts of possibilities and am looking for one that, if implemented, would strike the right balance. The people in government aren't looking and, if they stumbled upon something, they'd run in the other direction if they feared it would upset the corporations who pull their strings.


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