Earlier this week the NY Times featured an editorial by Mark Helprin which argued for infinite copyright — if you write a book, the rights will stay with you and your heirs until your list of begats is longer than the Book of Genesis. (Ah, Bible humor…. Never all that funny.)
Helprin notes that if you own a house it’s yours forever, but write a novel and your ownership is limited:
“Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren. To the claim that this provision strikes malefactors of great wealth, one might ask, first, where the heirs of Sylvia Plath berth their 200-foot yachts. And, second, why, when such a stiff penalty is not applied to the owners of Rockefeller Center or Wal-Mart, it is brought to bear against legions of harmless drudges who, other than a handful of literary plutocrats (manufacturers, really), are destined by the nature of things to be no more financially secure than a seal in the Central Park Zoo.”
I thought the article was interesting, and immediatley I started tabulating a list pros and cons.
You wrote it you own it, right? Shouldn’t your heirs benefit from your life’s work rather than the companies who suddenly have the right to print up your work for free?
Here’s another argument for longer copyright, and for this I need to tell an anecdote: I was trying to sell an out of print work by a great and very dead 20th Century writer, and a publisher was all lined up and ready to go. But then we discovered that the work was in the public domain, and because they didn’t have exclusivity in the marketplace (there was a cheap pamphlet of the work for sale on Amazon) they didn’t think it was economically viable to proceed. So the book went from potentially being promoted and sold in bookstores by a reputable publisher to languishing out there in a corner of the Internet waiting to be discovered.
Without the financial incentive of exclusivity, publishers may determine that it isn’t economically viable to produce and promote some more obscure works, and works in the “public domain” may actually end up being no more available to the public than they would be if they were under copyright. So one could argue that the public doesn’t always benefit from public domain.
Do you really want to try and track down the heirs of someone who died 400 years ago in order to secure permission to use a passage of their work? Also, public domain is great for classics because publishers have to compete to produce the best edition, which has resulted in some awesome scholarly editions of old books. We all benefit from having thousands of editions of Shakespeare’s plays, right?
And then there’s Google. Google is in the process of digitizing pretty much every work in the public domain ever published, and now it will be easier than ever to find published books that up until now were collecting dust and keeping that creepy guy in the library stacks company. The public domain is going to be more accessible than ever.
So you tell me: should there be a time limit on intellectual property, and if so, what should that limit be?