Doug's Challenge

By Tim Quirk
Doug has asked us to nominate the "biggest policy threat or potentially transformative initiative currently facing our culture," and has kicked things off with the specter of "endless assignable copyright."

Wow. I tend to be pretty pessimistic when it comes to government and the arts, and I agree that our habit of continually lengthening the term of a copyright (the original term was just 14 years back in 1790, and now it's life of author plus another 70 freaking years) is a dangerous one that has the effect of making copyright owners spend more energy maximizing the value of existing works while inhibiting the creation of new ones (dont even get me started on all the art that has NOT been created since the Biz Markie ruling quashed the explosion of creative sampling that had been flourishing in the late-80s/early-90s).

But am I silly for thinking it's impossible to make the term endless, as Doug fears? I mean, it's right there in our Constitution that copyrights can only be secured for "limited Times." I sympathize with the argument that repeated extensions might as well mean copyrights are perpetual, but I also recognize it's just that -- an argument, not a fact, and one the Supreme Court unfortunately rejected.

So, while I concur that overlong copyrights are a big problem and well worth fighting, I don't know that they'd win my vote for Biggest Threat Ever, and even if they did I'd hesitate to market the problem as "endless copyright."

Here's why: I'm accustomed to the most impassioned advocates for a more equitable balance between public and private interests getting dismissed as naive cranks -- it happens to me weekly, and I only do this stuff in my spare time. And I don't want to give the other side any ammunition by overstating our concerns.

I felt a similar twinge when reading the part of Brian Newman's otherwise excellent post that warned how the corporations in control of our culture today are "vicious, blood-sucking beasts hell-bent on keeping their antiquated business models at any cost to society." I agree with the hell-bent part, and I endorse the passion, but that kind of verbiage strikes me as an excellent way to get ignored by the very people you want to influence.

The people who control our culture are not vicious, blood-sucking beasts. They are rational, if hyper-competitive, economic actors who will buy any advantage they can because they believe that's their job.

I want to change their minds, and if we can't do that I want to outbid or outmaneuver them for those advantages. And doing so successfully means being clear-headed about their motivations, and persuasive in our arguments.

(A quick addendum: if you Google "Tim Quirk" and the phrase "fucking stupid," you will find just one of many examples of me seeming to ignore my own advice, here. I mention this so it's clear I'm speaking from experience of trying it the other way, not from some school-marmish squeamishness.)
July 23, 2010 7:35 AM | | Comments (3) |


Glad to see Bill and I can agree on some things. But, I think the three of us can agree. I was speaking strongly because I thought this topic needed more strong words, but I agree that there are areas where we need to work together (even if at heart we still disagree or think the other one is a beast) and you need to engage as many people as possible. On the other hand - we've been losing this battle through a slow-drip method for some time. In politics, the right hasn't been afraid to pull punches and slip into hyperbole to advance their cause, and it often works. I'm willing to bet the property rights people will get pulled into the copyright debates to our disadvantage before long, so perhaps some strong rhetoric will serve us well here and there....

I think the most common thread of this entire discussion is that we live in a plutocracy. From that perspective I think Brian’s words might be harsh and not suited for polite society, but they are accurate and describe well the corporate forces we are dealing with. The commercial film industry is indeed one of the most “vicious” in the entire corporate world. It seems to have something do with the extreme competition and extreme gambles their productions require. “Blood-sucking” is a metaphor for extreme and exploitative greed. This also accurately describes the commercial film industry. They have few qualms about dumbing-down our society, exploiting child audiences, threatening people with methods similar to racketeering, and using any means necessary to destroy the competition both in the film industry and in other forms of entertainment and art. “Beasts” is also a good term because the forces of greed and exploitation created by the film industry’s corporate atmosphere has a dehumanizing effect on its executives and agents. “Hell-bent” is also accurate because the competition and risks are so high that often only the most singular focus can succeed – a focus that precludes many important ethical and moral considerations (such as the effect of their work on audiences and society and the means they use to maintain their quasi monopolist control of the industry both nationally and internationally.) And of course “antiquated business models at any cost to society” is also true and has already been discussed many times in these blogs.

Anyway, if you want politeness you might want to avoid artists. Some of them have a bad habit of telling the truth, though they are probably becoming rarer.

The letter of the law might be "life plus 70" now, but the reality is that no copyrighted works have entered the public domain for 90 years. Every time things start getting close, Disney fires up the lobbyists and gets it extended again.

During that time, media has changed substantially:
- color TV
- stereo audio recording
- digital recording
- digital imaging

It seems ridiculous not to have any of that media available to the public.

I'd say the biggest threat is not specifically the copyright, it's a mindset where there effectively IS no public domain, and you're always creating under risk of lawsuit.

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Brian Newman commented on Doug's Challenge: Glad to see Bill and I can agree on some things. But, I think the three of ...

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