Saturday, October 19, 2013

Copyright (or: Why It's Broken)

First post in over a year, guys, I'm still alive.

Today's subject is on copyright. Namely, on why the current copyright system is broken. This post will focus on the copyright system in the United States. The situation may or may not be the same in your jurisdiction, so readers outside of the US, please keep this in mind.

First, a little history: Starting with the first passage of the Copyright Act of 1790, the duration of copyright was set at fourteen years from date of a work's creation, and if the author was still alive at the end of that term, he or she could apply for one more extension of fourteen years. The act was simple, it only covered books, maps, and charts, only afforded protection to works created by US citizens, and was geared for utilitarian purposes, namely to foster innovation by making blatant plagiarisms illegal. It also specified a statute of limitations on infringement to just one year.

As time went on, new copyright Acts were passed extending the duration of copyright with each new Act. New types of media were included as copyrightable, and new requirements for attaining copyright protection were added (such as requiring the encircled "C" icon, or the words "All rights reserved.")

Today, works created by individuals are protected for the life of the creator, plus seventy additional years. Works created "for hire", that is, under the banner of a corporation, like the vast majority of movies, musical releases, and video games, are protected for ninety-five years from their first publication, or one hundred and twenty years from their creation, if unpublished.

What this means is that everything created throughout your lifetime will almost surely never enter the public domain during your lifetime. This means that rightsholders will continue to charge for access to content long after any significant entertainment value is gone, or more likely, use copyright to bar access to works that the public has a demand for while the rightsholders refuse to create any further supply.

Let's consider this example: The original Super Mario Brothers game, as released in 1985, were the original Copyright Act still in effect, would enter the public domain in a few months' time. Unfortunately, by the time this game is released into the public domain, the majority of individuals interested in the game for entertainment purposes will either be dead, or much too old to actually enjoy it anyways, leaving the only remaining use when that time comes to be that of academic treatment.

Now, let me remind you that the vast majority of innovation is iterative, not revolutionary. Consider the Call of Duty franchise, whose last truly innovative release was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The innovation here is ingrained in the title itself - "modern warfare", the switch from a World War II setting to a contemporary one. All subsequent releases did not bring anything new nor revolutionary to the table, instead opting to iterate upon the previous works.

Copyright prevents others from attempting to try out minor ideas or iterations of an existing work, that is, adapting an existing work to create a new one. Creative mashups such as "Mari0" are in all likelihood in direct violation of copyright law.

Of course, the layman might argue that without copyright, there would be nothing to prevent others from ripping off content left and right, thus discouraging anyone from publishing in the first place. While this is somewhat true (for there are many who would continue to publish for the sake of creativity), the retort is based on a faulty assumption: That the issue is black or white, that the only choices are the current copyright regime or nothing at all, that there is, nor can be, any in between.