Who owns information, ideas and fun?

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Who owns information, ideas and fun?

Copyright is the legal right to control or prevent, within certain bounds and for a limited period of time, the distribution of creative works. Copyright can be a great incentive for authors, the fairest way to reward them and, eventually, a great advantage for society as a whole.

Unfortunately, without most people realizing it, today copyright is being pushed to ridiculous extremes that must be stopped as soon as possible because they can directly harm any of us by messing with our money and private lives. Here are some examples.

The bear who keeps Justices busy

The Winnie the Pooh books were written about eighty years ago, from 1924 to 1928. Their author, A. A. Milne, died in 1956, that is fifty years ago. But Justices and employees paid with public money, all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States, have been engaged for twelve years looking at lawyers debating which other people, who weren’t alive back then and never wrote a single word of those books, should still have a monopoly on the money made through Winnie the Pooh merchandising.

The cruelest dinosaur who ever lived

You can joke about your President, but not about an imaginary purple dinosaur. Seriously now: don’t you or your kids dare put online a parody of Barney, if you want to avoid an extremely real lawsuit from what has been defined as “baseless legal threats” and a “prehistoric understanding of copyright and trademark laws”. As we write, the lawsuit is still ongoing. The same thing, of course, could happen with any other cartoon or comics character, of course.

Avada Kedavra: the fan killing curse

Some years ago, some teenagers used to meet on a website to share their own Harry Potter stories: not for profit, mind you, just to practice and improve their writing skills. The Warner Brothers company sent out cease-and-desist letters, to defend their frail finances from such deadly attacks. Eventually they had to give up, but only after a lot of unnecessary, potentially very expensive legal troubles for the families of the girls and boys involved.

All YOU need is love: hand your money over, please!

Today, many parents and grandparents would probably like to buy, now that they have enough time and/or money to enjoy it, the complete works of the Beatles or some other famous bands which one cannot enjoy anymore in live performance. The Beatles, for example, broke up in 1970, when they (and their recording company, agents and so on) had already made more than enough money to live comfortably. Ideally, today you could buy all their all recordings, including those which were never released as albums or went out of circulation shortly after release.

Unfortunately, this is either impossible or at least as expensive as when the music was first released, because, after more than forty years, those recordings are still under a monopoly. In 1977, scientists could not let aliens know about the Beatles, by sending samples on their music on the Voyager spacecraft, for fear of being sued. Even if all four Beatles had approved the idea. Copyright of the first Beatles album will expire (if laws don’t change again) only in 2013. Without such a long copyright, everybody could already repackage, sell or distribute online the original recordings; that would be a great advantage for all fans and lots of job opportunities, all without doing any real damage to the creators of that music. But no, most of those songs now “belong”, as far as distribution is concerned, to Michael Jackson who didn’t write them and doesn’t exactly need that money to survive.

Copyright extension beyond any reasonable limit harms all creative activities, not just music. Italian playwrite and philosopher Luigi Pirandello, Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1934, died in 1936. Italian theater companies continued to pay royalties every time they performed his plays, according to copyright law, for seventy years after his death.

In 2006, however, as soon as that term expired, royalty payments on Pirandello’s works were extended with a legal trick until 2013. In other words, the incentives for actors and theater managers to keep Pirandello’s work alive have been artificially limited for seven more years, probably lowering the residual economic value and benefit of those plays.

(this chapter continues here…)