Copyrights and wrongs

Techdirt has a story about how a Mark Helprin thinks that Copyrights should last forever. I think that Techdirt has it right and Mark Helprin has it wrong.

The key point here is that in pretending (or simply ignorantly claiming) that intellectual property is the same as tangible property, Helprin completely misunderstands what rights copyright law gives him. It is not the same right as he has over his own property -- which, after he sells it, he no longer has control over it. Instead of "property rights," copyright gives him a monopoly right (which is what Jefferson preferred to call it) to control how his output is used even after it's sold. That's completely different than a property right -- and, again, the reasoning is simply as an incentive for creation, not to guarantee control. Apparently, Helprin needs quite a history and economics lesson -- but if he had his way, that would be much more difficult since such ideas would be locked up forever.

A monopoly is a good point. If I own money it does not stop other people from using their money in the same way I use my money. If I own Mickey Mouse, I can stop other people from creating a cartoon mouse that has the same characteristics as Mickey Mouse. I can make a cartoon mouse that is different, but if I get too close I will have to fight off a Disney lawsuit.

Copyright has two useful purposes. The first is to assure that Authors get paid for their works. The idea was so that the publishers at the time did not ripoff writers. Just owning a press at the time the constitution was written gave someone a lot of power. It is not like now where the average person can afford to desktop publish.

The second useful purpose is to encourage the creation of new works. What some people would say is that having the copyright forever would encourage artist to create as many works as they can. This is taken care of by having the copyright last the author's life. If copyright lasted for ever Shakespeare's' decedents would never need to create anything. They could live off the work of Shakespeare forever. That would not encourage the creation of anything.

Helprin is only seeing one aspect of the Public Domain. He is only seeing the part where stores can publish their over copies of books in the Public Domain. The other part of copyright is control. Once a work is in the Public Domain anyone can create their own version of the same story. Right now I cannot create a version of Gone with the Wind that takes place in World War II, because I would need to get the rights from the copyright holders. I can do a version of Oliver Twist that takes place in the 60s San Francisco.

Some ideas get so big, they go beyond of the person who thought of them. If we never let any new ideas go into the public domain we are robbing the world and robbing artist of a way to see the world.


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