Let’s talk about the many problems in copyright law. These problems include:
The biggest problem, however, is that copyright terms are not consistent with the way works are actually distributed. In the United States, a work created by an independent, named author is protected for the author’s lifetime. But wait, there’s more! Once the author dies, the work is still protected for another 70 years!
What is more, it is possible for the US Congress to extend copyrights for works already produced. This obviously has nothing to do with the stated purpose of copyright law, which is to encourage authors to create works and to make those works available to the public.
So what exactly is the problem with all this? It all relates to distribution. If the work is not actually being published or distributed, but the author died less than 70 years ago – or worse, is still alive – this means it is impossible for anyone to gain access to the work. In addition, because most publishers require authors to sign away all rights in return for publication and royalties, this means the author is unable to republish its own work.
As an example, take Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, which was supposed to be a multivolume collection of all of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. Ultimately, only two volumes were published. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Volume 1 was published in the United States in 1991, and was then unavailable for ten years until another publication run. Volume 2 has been out of print in the United States since 1992, the year of Asimov’s death.
This leaves us in the idiotic situation we currently find ourselves: all of Asimov’s works are under copyright until after the next perihelion of Comet 1P/Halley, but most of them are out of print and will therefore be completely inaccessible for nearly fifty more years, unless the copyright holder decides, through its endless magnanimity, to trigger another print run. This is highly doubtful, of course, considering that Doubleday did not even bother to complete The Complete Stories in the first place. Nearly 300 of Asimov’s short stories are therefore unaccounted for.
And this covers only books. What of other media? In many cases, there is no way whatsoever to access films, television programmes, or albums. Take game shows, for instance. There are many wonderful British shows such as The Cube and The Million Pound Drop, but anyone in any other country in the world is unable to gain access to them. They do not air in most other countries, and the broadcasters’ websites permit only British residents to view the programmes online.
In the United States, works created for hire, such as films and television programmes, enter the public domain 95 years after publication. So, if you are an American who wants to watch the first episode of The Cube, you will be able to do so legally in 2103, unless, again, the broadcaster chooses to make it available in the US through the kindness of its heart.
Many publishers take advantage of current law to create artificial scarcity and therefore raise prices. This is the purpose of the “Disney Vault”, a scheme in which Disney intentionally refuses to make its films available through any means – DVD, download, or even television broadcasts – for long periods of time. Then, the film finally becomes available, but only for a limited time. As a result, Disney gouges the price and extracts even more money from an uncertain public who has no idea when it will next have access to that film. This cynical perversion of copyright law is enabled by the US Congress, which, as we have discussed already, has repeatedly extended copyrights for existing works. By an astounding coincidence, passage of each of these bills happened to occur immediately before Steamboat Willie was to expire.
Oh, and let’s not forget that many Disney films, from Cinderella to The Little Mermaid to Tangled, were based on works in the public domain. Therefore, most Disney films would never have existed were it not for the limitations that copyright law once carried.
As a final example, consider early computer and console games made for platforms that are no longer in use, like the Commodore 64 or the Atari. Even if you have an emulator and want to play, say, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, there is no legal way to do so. No Lucasfilm Games titles from the late 1980s and early 1990s have been made available since that time. Items that have become obsolete and are no longer supported, but are still under copyright protection, have become so commonplace that there is a name for them: abandonware.
In the current environment, we should expect rapid, exponential growth in the quantity of abandonware. Publishers obviously want to concentrate on their newest products, in which they have heavily invested. They produce more albums, more films, and more television programmes, all hoping to catch on and become the next big thing. Most of them, of course, do not catch on and are quickly forgotten.
But not by some people. Each one has its fans who caught it in the brief time when it was available. They have shared it with others who may have missed it and now have no way to gain access to it. Even those who created said content are often unable to gain access to it by legal means.
This is why copyright terms are not consistent with the way works are actually distributed. With the existence of the Internet, there is literally no limit on the content that could be shared. However, the vast majority of the content that has been created is currently not shared. Copyright law has, quite clearly, failed us.
But we here at GoobNet are here to solve the problem. We are pleased to announce the GoobNet Use It or Lose It Copyright Act. This bill makes only one change to United States copyright law. All terms of copyright protection remain the same, with one provision: Works that are not distributed to United States residents automatically enter the public domain one year after distribution ceases.
What do we mean by distribution? The work must be made available to consumers throughout the United States who wish to access it. This distribution could be in many forms: for a television programme or film, it could be released nationwide in theatres or broadcast on a national television network. Books, CDs, DVDs, and other physical media could be in active publication. In addition, any form of media could be made available for download online. All of these would constitute distribution under the GoobNet Use It or Lose It Copyright Act.
But if a work is not made available for a full year, the publisher is assumed to have forfeited the rights to it, and it enters the public domain. This would occur one year after a book, disc, or other physical medium goes out of print, one year after a television episode airs, or one year after a film’s nationwide run in theatres ends. Once the work enters the public domain, anyone may distribute it without payment to the original creator.
If a publisher wants to keep the rights to a work, it can do so in many ways: rebroadcasting it, starting another print run, or simply posting it online. It does not matter whether the work is downloadable for free or for a fee, just as long as it is made available to all residents of the United States.
For example, many magazines and newspapers maintain online archives of back issues, sometimes for a fee. This constitutes distribution under the GoobNet Use It or Lose It Copyright Act. However, if a periodical does not have an online archive, each issue would enter the public domain one year after that issue’s print run ends.
This applies only to works that have actually been distributed at least once. Undistributed items, such as books not yet printed or television programmes not yet aired, maintain the existing copyright terms. Authors, for instance, are protected whilst they shop their books to publishers, and film writers are protected whilst they shop their scripts, provided they do not make the works available to the general public in the meantime. If they do, the terms of the GoobNet Use It or Lose It Copyright Act apply.
The purpose, of course, is to ensure that all residents of the United States are given the opportunity to access a creative work. Under this bill, the publisher must actually give Americans that opportunity, and not simply hoard it.
Assuming the GoobNet Use It or Lose It Copyright Act is successful – and how could it not be? – we look forward to helping the United States correct the other problems with its copyright law: shortening terms, ensuring that original authors retain control over their own works in perpetuity, and protecting fair use and derivative works. Americans, prepare to regain access to your creative works!
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