Should copyright extend past the life of the creator?

A dear old friend dropped in over the holidays, and as we dined on a couple of pretty bad sandwiches, she expressed her frustration with a recent situation:

She sings in a well-known West Coast chorale. The conductor had composed a piece of music for which the lyrics were to be the Robert Frost poem “Stopping By the Woods On A Snowy Evening.” While the chorale was in rehearsals for this, somebody clued him in that he should get the permission of the Frost estate. Frost’s heirs said no way, Jose, and offered to sue if the piece were performed without their permission using those “lyrics.”

My friend was really indignant about this; as she sees it, the heirs of Robert Frost have NO business stopping the ongoing process of creation–the language in the poem can’t “belong” to anyone now that Frost has passed on–the copyright laws aren’t encouraging creativity and invention here, they’re stifling it.

I objected that poets, like everyone else, might like to leave a little something for their families. She responded that the recent extension of copyright was driven entirely by the commercial concerns of the Disney empire (seeking to protect the earliest Mickey Mouse works.) Surely I couldn’t be defending THEM.

As a lawyer who has never done “intellectual property” law, I declined to get much further in the debate–other than to observe that the extension of US copyright apparently just put us in sync with the length granted by European copyrights. I also pointed out that if the conductor had started by getting permission, he might have obtained it–showing up after the fact of using the poem sure didn’t help his approach to the current holders of the copyright.

I’ve also had an interesting discussion with a software developer I know who advocates a concept called “copyleft” --the creator says that anyone can use this software, but not for PROFIT.

Dopers, what do you think? Does copyright extension past the death of the creator put control of ideas in the hands of people who don’t deserve them? Should Frost’s heirs allow free use of his poetry? Should Frost’s heirs have anything to say about it at all?

There have been several good threads recently in Great Debates on precisely this topic. You might want to check out Do Copyrights Last Too Long? and Is There a Constitutional Limit on Copyright Terms? .

The problem here is not so much copyright after death as that copyright terms as just too damned long. The original term was much more correct.

14 years + one 14 year renewal if the author was still alive.
If you die just after creating, your heirs get the remainder of the 14 year term, if you live long, you get to renew the copyright on works that are still of value.

You provide an excellent example of why our current copyright regime harms creativity more than it helps: Because the vast majority of creative work involves bulding on existing work. A properly restricted term of copyright makes that problem a whole lot less severe than it currently is while having virtually no adverse effect on the incentive to create.

This is a fallacy. It’s one of Disney’s talking points, but it simply isn’t true, as pointed out in some of the legal briefs in the copyright case currently before the Supreme Court

Besides’ which it’s also no reason to change our rules. Keep in mind that at one time Europe had permanent copyrights, and our founders considered and explictly rejected duplicating that system.

Having the copyright term last the life of the creator does make sense to me. From the perspective of the artist: it would really suck to see your creation fall into the public domain during your own lifetime; you’d have to watch idly as others took your idea and did whatever they pleased with it. Sure, the copyright terms of old were short, but so were lifespans; by the time the two 14-year terms passed, the author, if still living, would most likely be in his 50s and probably nearing the end anyway.

On the other hand, life plus 70 is way way too long, and the Bono extension, which pushed back the expiration date for already-existing works, was just needless. I’d support something more like “life plus 20”. That would allow the author’s family to benefit from his work long enough to raise any children he might have to adulthood, or to sell the rights (odds are no one would want to buy if they could only profit from it for, say, five years, but twenty seems salable).

I wish I could distinguish the responses I’ve seen here (and in the thread cited above) on the basis of whether the person answering thought of him/herself as an “artist.” When you will ordinary property to your family, you can have substantial control of it after your death (“the house & land to my sister Ellen, but only so long as she lives there herself, otherwise, to the town of East Cupcake for use as a public park, and if not so used, to revert to my nephews Donald and Ronald”)…so the idea that an artist would want his family to benefit from the use of his creations–and limit how they are used-- doesn’t seem so strange.

But, interestingly, some of the people replying who seem to BE artistic types are quite strongly of the opinion that “all art is derivative” therefore, no one can own it.

Yeah? have you ever tried to get a writer to change Chapter Three? Believe me, a mother bear with an endangered cub is no scarier than an author who wants to keep Chapter Three EXACTLY the way it is. And don’t tell her that it’s “derivative.” SHE sat over the word processor for two weeks to get it to come out.

So far in this thread, we have nominees for:
28 years max, even during the life of the creator
life of the creator plus 20 years.

Anyone here who thinks there should be NO copyright (“you can’t own an idea”)?

If so, what would you say to my Chapter Three author to convince her to give away her work?

The argument againt NO copyright, is, I guess, that no one would create anything if they couldn’t profit from it.

That’s garbage: the web is the perfect counter-example. And there’s also the idea that art motivated by profit is never great art.

On the other hand, the copy-left idea mentioned above seems valuable: I’d hate to create something and have to watch others profit from it.

I remember discussing this topic exhaustively in a previous thread, so I’m kinda worn out on it. But I want to touch upon something:

There are “ideas” and then there are original, unique works. Both are copyrightable, and both things (ideas and the original work) reside in the same entity. But there should be a distinction made between the two.

“Ideas” (a plot outline, a concept, etc.) are harder to define—how close can someone get to the “idea” without violating copyright? Can you really copyright some ideas? It can be tough to agree on some of these issues. We’re always seeing news of lawsuits being brought up against a movie studio, who supposedly stole an “idea” from an unknown author. And sometimes, you get the feeling that the studio really did steal the idea, othertimes, you don’t really know. It’s hard to know where to draw the line, or define how much you can be “influenced” by an idea without crossing the line and actually stealing it.

However, it’s not hard to define what the exact words of Chapter 3 were, or the look of an original piece of artwork or photograph, or whatever. When someone else copies (or reproduces, publishes, whatever) the exact words in an author’s Chapter 3, they are obviously copying (or, if you prefer, “ripping off”) the original work. No doubt about it. There is never any doubt about it.

Sometimes, we want to discuss the vague and cloudy area of “ideas” without also discussing that some people want to use of the original word-for-word (or pixel-for-pixel) work for their own purposes or profit. While there is undoubtedly some “wiggle room” about how much one artist can “borrow” from another artist and not be ripping them off, there is no doubt what’s going on when someone publishes someone else’s book (or their painting, or their photograph) without getting permission. They are defintely using it—they aren’t “inspired” by it, they aren’t “adapting” it. There is no “idea” that they “borrowed”. They took the original work and used it (as-is) and they didn’t add anything tangible of their own to the work.

This comprises a significant portion of copyright violation, in my opinion. It isn’t always just about some vague, smoky “you can’t steal ideas” thing. It’s the use of someone else’s original, relatively unaltered work, without getting permission to use it.

Well, yosemitebabe, what would you consider copyrightable in the case of the DiCaprio remake of Romeo and Juliet?

Web content is copyrightable. A lot of people with web sites make money off of them. (I do.)

That’s not true either. Many great works were commissioned. Artists have to eat too.

erislover: When the original author has been dead for centuries, I think the point is moot.

I am just pointing out the distinction between ideas and the actual word-for-word original work. Some people want to discuss one without touching upon the other.

The point isn’t moot, however, as the film is indeed copyrighted.

I was merely pointing out two different areas of “copyrightability”.

If I make copies of “Romeo + Juliet” on VHS and sell it on eBay, I would be violating copyright. Yes or no? I took the original, unadulterated work, made copies of it, and sold it for profit. Copyright violation. Plain and simple. Do you agree with this, or not?

The ideas that were “borrowed” to create “Romeo + Juliet” are a different kettle of fish. We could discuss them all day. (Well, I probably wouldn’t. I don’t see copyright violation when someone uses the work of someone who died centuries ago.)

But do you want to argue about whether or not it is a copyright violation for me to make multiple copies of the VHS tape and sell them for a profit?

My point was that there’s lot’s of fine stuff out there that no one profits from, not that it wasn’t possible to make money off them.

Granted. And are still, I suppose. But ususally in that case the artist decides content and form. I maintain that when the ‘artist’ creates mainly to sell, the result is less than great.

Argh. I get sucked in.

That’s always been true. Some people do stuff for the love of it, and will never make a profit from it. However, that doesn’t mean that someone else should be able to take the work that was “made for love” and profit from it instead of the original artist.

And just because some people won’t make a profit from something now, it doesn’t mean that they won’t change their mind later, and decide to sell the work. (Maybe they’ll hit hard times, whatever.)

But how do you measure these things? I would say that many artists have learned how to make money doing the things they love. When an artist loves doing something, it often turns out looking better anyway, and the buying public picks up on that. I know that’s true in my case.

Does that mean that if an artist “enjoys” doing something, that they shouldn’t also make a profit from it? (Not that you have suggested that, of course!) But there seems to be a mindset out there that says, “Well, you enjoyed doing it anyway, so why charge so much? I’m doing you a favor by taking it off your hands!” I mean, seriously. Some people actually think this.

The Sistine Chapel comes to mind.


Yes, but only because this work was copyrighted… and it was indeed highly derivative. I just wondered if you felt it could be reasonably copyrighted I the first place, given your distinction.

Not in america. The sole purpose for copyright is to encourage creativity (any other purpose being unconstitutional). Once you are dead, you can not create anything. Thus, copyright should expire upon death.

What about the children? Well, the creator of the work can leave to his children any money he has already made prior to dying. But the estate should not get the copyright AFTER the death of the creator of the work. There’s no incentive for creativity in such a system, thus it is unconstitutional. Also, intellectual property is evil and bad for society; it should be thrown away at the earliest opportunity. The death of the copyright holder is the most obvious opportunity to put a work into the public domain.

Sorry for sucking.:wink: I totally agree that it would suck for someone else to make a profit off your work, especially if you didn’t and didn’t make it that way.

I think we’re agreeing all the way, here. If you love it and everyone else loves it enough to buy it, you’re in a good place. If you don’t love it, but everyone else does, you’re pandering, and also it’s not likely to be great.

Not me. I think you should charge whatever you like and I hope you make yourself rich. But a velvet elvis ain’t art no matter what someone’s willing to pay.

I don’t think you were following what I was trying to say. I was merely describing the two areas of “copyrightability” (so to speak): The orignal work, (word-for-word, pixel-for-pixel) and then the idea behind it. Two different things, right? And I was just trying to point out the distiction between the two. One is easy to define and identify, the other often requires more discussion. Do you disagree with this?

Also, I already repeated several times that I don’t really see any copyright violation when one is copying the work of an author who has been dead for centuries. Why do you seem to act as if you expect me to see copyright violation there?