Adam’s Blog

That’s my thing, keepin’ the faith, baby. –Joe Friday

The Public’s Domain

Posted by Adam Graham on July 5, 2007

Lyn writes about a new take on Sherlock Holmes by Author Ann Lewis:

Despite the difficulties it presented, Ann believed it could be done and set out to prove it. Taking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s text, she reorganized it, edited it for first person voice, and added sections in Watson’s point of view to the story.

This is a very interesting takeoff on a classic, but why was she able to do it? Elementary, my dear reader, Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. However, you’ll have trouble being able to re-engineer future PI’s anytime soon. Why? Because, it takes much much longer for works to enter the public domain.

I have mixed feelings on this. As a writer, I like having my works protected, but the current system of Life + 70 years goes beyond what’s reasonable to protect writer’s rights, and gets even worse when it comes to films. Perhaps, it’d be good to go back to what the Constitution says on the matter:

“Congress shall have power…to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;”

The reason we have copyright and patent protections is not for the benefit of writers and inventors, but for the benefit of science and art.

Thus, we have patents on medicines because, if we didn’t have patents, once a medicine was discovered, people could freely make it without paying the company that developed it and it would not be worthwhile to do the research.

The same is the case with copyrights, if writers and artists could create a novel or movie and then it could be instantly produced without paying them, then there wouldn’t be much of a motive to spend the time needed to create quality work.

But is the current life of the author + 70 necessary? I think not. While, twenty years would be too short a length of time for most works, there has to be some happy medium, particularly when it comes to visual arts.

In order to protect the copyrights of popular properties, corporations have lobbied for massive protections. In 2003, Mickey Mouse was set to lapse into the public domain as it was created in 1928, and under current copyright law would have pushed into the public domain. However, Congress was lobbied and Disney and all other Corporations were granted a 25 year Copyright extension. Thus, Mickey won’t enter the public domain until 2028 (unless Disney and its Congressional representatives won’t allow that too.) and Superman instead of entering the public domain in 2013, will enter the public domain in 2038.

There are two problems with this. First of all, Congress is using its Copyright power in a way the constitution never intended (as a way to help to big corporations.) and thus the cultural good intended is not being accomplished. It’s incredibly difficult to find public domain music because of this, for example.

The second point that must be that the harm is often done to the public. While most consider, “It’s a Wonderful Life” one of the greatest films of all times, it didn’t come into popularity until it was believed to have slipped into the public domain. Though later proven false, had it not been believed to be in the public domain, it would have never become a classic or got its second wind.

How many other great movies remain in a vault somewhere, languishing and unable to be discovered by the public due to copyrights that, while in force, are not being used for any useful purpose. Indeed, it’s counter to the reasons that Constitution gave Congress for protecting Copyrights. One key example: The 1950s Dragnet series is considered a pioneer of crime drama, but only 30 episodes that slipped into public domain are available anywhere. The show hasn’t been shown in syndication for decades, and a whole generation only knows Joe Friday as a 1960s anti-drug Crusader because the ’60s show has been shown. Beverly Hillbillies has enjoyed more airings, but still no DVD box set is available for them. The first ever TV show to be shot entirely in color, Bonanza, has no season box sets in the United States—only in Germany.

There are four solutions I see. The first three involve reform of Copyright laws:

1) Change General Copyright term from Life of the Author +70 years to Life of the Author + 20 years. There’s no reason for grandchildren (or in most cases, big corporations) to enjoy what’s in effect, a perpetual copyright. Of course, we couldn’t reverse this for the copyrights that have been granted since 1978, but how much of the stuff made in 1978 is culturally valuable anyway? But for future copyrights, Life of the Author +20 is appropriate and more than enough time for it to be exercised and enjoyed.

2) Revoke the 2003 Copyright Extension. It was unfair to the American public and against the Spirit of the Constitution. Those who had 25 years added to their Copyright term will either have their copyright expire when it should have originally but for Congress’ meddling, or given 5 years to prepare for their characters to move into the Public domain if that deadline has already passed.

3) Create a special category for abandoned movies or television shows. If a TV show or movie isn’t being syndicated anywhere in the US, isn’t being sold in active home video release for 15 years solid, it should automatically enter the public domain for fans to enjoy it. We’ll have to call this the Digiview Act.

4) An Industry consortium should set up a website, where they ask TV show fans to put their money where their mouth is. You want those last 3 seasons of Dragnet on DVD, what’s it worth to you? If they get enough fan pledges, they produce the set and send out to those who pledged to order it. Of course, government can’t force this, but it would be nice.

Regardless, I think our public domain and copyright laws need serious reform and balance. Of course, as most hardcore fans won’t make a stink about it, it’ll be an uphill battle, but one that’s worth fighting, in order to preserve and expose cultural treasures.


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