It is really true that for those who believe in IP, there is no non-arbitrary way to define the term, and that term must necessarily be decided by the state, which also must necessarily enforce it. One workaround to this problem: make copyright eternal. This is the proposal of Adrian Hon, writing for the Telegraph. And catch the great George Bernard Shaw quote in here.
On Tuesday 14th, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) posted a message on RnBXclusive.com, stating: “If you have downloaded music using this website you may have committed a criminal offence which carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine under UK law.”
SOCA’s threat is a stirring defence of what we hold dear in this country – the right of a creator to benefit from their intellectual property, whether it be a song, book, film, or game. Without this assurance of compensation, we might not see any new creative works being produced at all, and so it’s for this reason that we’ve continually lengthened copyright terms from 14-28 years as set out by the Statue of Anne in 1710 to “lifetime plus 70 years” today.
Yet now, as we’ve instituted decade-long jail terms and unlimited fines for copyright infringers, it’s time to take the next step in extending copyright terms even further.
Imagine you’re a new parent at 30 years old and you’ve just published a bestselling new novel. Under the current system, if you lived to 70 years old and your descendants all had children at the age of 30, the copyright in your book – and thus the proceeds – would provide for your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.
But what, I ask, about your great-great-great-grandchildren? What do they get? How can our laws be so heartless as to deny them the benefit of your hard work in the name of some do-gooding concept as the “public good”, simply because they were born a mere century and a half after the book was written? After all, when you wrote your book, it sprung from your mind fully-formed, without requiring any inspiration from other creative works – you owe nothing at all to the public. And what would the public do with your book, even if they had it? Most likely, they’d just make it worse.
No, it’s clear that our current copyright law is inadequate and unfair. We must move to Eternal Copyright – a system where copyright never expires, and a world in which we no longer snatch food out of the mouths of our creators’ descendants. With eternal copyright, the knowledge that our great-great-great-grandchildren and beyond will benefit financially from our efforts will no doubt spur us on to achieve greater creative heights than ever seen before.
However, to make it entirely fair, Eternal Copyright should be retroactively applied so that current generations may benefit from their ancestors’ works rather than allowing strangers to rip your inheritance off. Indeed, by what right do Disney and the BBC get to adapt Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, and Sherlock without paying the descendants of Lewis Carroll, the Brothers Grimm, and Arthur Conan Doyle?
Of course, there will be some odd effects. For example, the entire Jewish race will do rather well from their eternal copyright in much of the Bible, and Shakespeare’s next of kin will receive quite the windfall from the royalties in the thousands of performances and adaptations of his plays – money well earned, I think we can all agree.
Naturally, we’ll need a government-controlled bureaucracy to track the use of copyrighted material from all of history and to properly apportion royalties to the billions of beneficiaries in a timely manner. There are some downsides; for example, we can expect countless legal cases to spring up concerning the descent of various famous creators, which will unfortunately gum up our courts for the indefinite future, but it’s a price worth paying in order to put things right.
A bold idea such as Eternal Copyright will inevitably have opponents who wish to stand in the way of progress. Some will claim that because intellectual works are non-rivalrous, unlike tangible goods, meaning that they can be copied without removing the original, we shouldn’t treat copyright as theft at all. They might even quote George Bernard Shaw, who said, “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”
Such opponents are condoning criminal activity, plain and simple, and are frankly no better than criminals themselves. Why would anyone want to create new ideas and intellectual works if they can’t benefit from them in perpetuity? Are we to believe that people have motivations other than the purely financial and quantifiable? And are they suggesting we should continue to allow modern “creators” to sully the legacy of legends like Jane Austen and Hans Christian Andersen with their pointless, worthless adaptations, remixes, and reinterpretations of Pride and Prejudice and The Emperor’s New Clothes?
In the interests of full disclosure, I do want to point out a genuine problem with Eternal Copyright, in that it will be difficult to enforce due to the inherently criminal nature of digital technology, which allows information to be copied perfectly and instantly. Absent a complete ban of the technology, which admittedly would be a little draconian, one obvious solution would be to hard-wire digital devices to automatically detect, report, and prevent duplication of copyrighted material. Yes, this might get the libertarians and free-speech crazies out protesting, but a bit of fresh air wouldn’t do them any harm.
Certainly we wouldn’t want to listen to their other suggestions, which would see us broaden the definition of “fair use” and, horrifically, reduce copyright terms back to merely a lifetime or even less. Not only would such an act deprive our great-great-grandchildren of their birthright, but it would surely choke off creativity to the dark ages of the 18th and 19th centuries, a desperately lean time for art in which we had to make do with mere scribblers such as Wordsworth, Swift, Richardson, Defoe, Austen, Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, and Keats.
Do we really want to return to that world? I don’t think so.