Mark Helprin writes a rather disingenuous piece in the New York Times op-ed today, arguing that Congress needs to extend copyrights again, beyond the already-obscene author’s life plus 70 years.
What if, after you had paid the taxes on earnings with which you built a house, sales taxes on the materials, real estate taxes during your life, and inheritance taxes at your death, the government would eventually commandeer it entirely? This does not happen in our society … to houses. Or to businesses.
Once the state has dipped its enormous beak into the stream of your wealth and possessions they are allowed to flow from one generation to the next. Though they may be divided and diminished by inflation, imperfect investment, a proliferation of descendants and the government taking its share, they are not simply expropriated.
That is, unless you own a copyright.
Poetic, isn’t it? It’s also a nice bit of wishful thinking. The flaw in comparing copyrights to real property, is that businesses, farms, and houses require real capital to purchase or start, and require upkeep to maintain their value. All that’s needed to write the “great American novel,” as Mr. Helprin apparently thinks he has done, is a pencil and paper (of course, you can use a typewriter, or a word processor, but that’s beside the point – it’s certainly not required). There’s no great infusion of capital required, and once the novel is written, there’s no upkeep required. You also didn’t pay taxes on the ideas or the words you used, or on the manuscript itself. The government, in fact, taxes nothing but your profits from a written work, which I would say is a much better deal than the taxes you pay on a house.
There’s also the small matter of how, exactly, is one supposed to write the “great American novel” if there’s no way to ever build on the work of others? Let’s face it, most of the plots and characters out there have been done somewhere before. There are, conversely, lots of examples of tremendous works of art which are based directly on others’ work. If the descendants of William Shakespeare still controlled every aspect of his works, we probably would not have West Side Story, or Kiss Me Kate, The Lion in Winter, or the literally thousands of productions of his plays every single year. William Shakespeare is considered the greatest playwright of all time precisely because his works are free for all to read, use and enjoy. If any modern writer wants the same thing (and really, what writer wouldn’t?), the price to be paid is simple: you have to eventually relinquish control to the public domain.
The far greater problem facing society when it comes to the continual extensions of copyright law is the problem of orphaned works. There are thousands of works which had their copyrights extended automatically in 1998 which would have otherwise entered the public domain, and for which there are no owners. Their owners might have died with no heir, or didn’t tell their children they owned a copyright, or simply don’t want the copyright anymore. For whatever reason, these works are just sitting there, unable to be used by anyone, simply because Congress blindly extended their already worthless copyright. Imagine the good for society if those works could be rehabilitated by groups like Project Gutenberg, and they could inspire a new generation of novelists, poets, painters, historians, filmmakers, and other artists!
Let’s face it: the number of copyrighted works that would produce an appreciable income for a writer’s grandchildren are vanishingly small, just noise compared to the ocean of abandoned and otherwise inaccessible works. Continually extending copyright terms for the benefit of a few powerful companies like Disney creates a cultural wasteland, where nobody’s work can contribute to the improvement of society without the tax of a license fee, for an entire generation, and in many cases several. Stop the madness – roll back copyright to where it strikes a proper balance in favor of the people again.