Rethinking Copyrights

| February 5, 2003

The struggle over the future of copyright has escalated to an all-out war. Major content providers?such as Disney and the Recording Industry Association of America?scored a dramatic victory last month when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act. Plaintiffs in the case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, had dubbed the 1998 law the ?Mickey Mouse Protection Act? because it extended copyrights by 20 years to 90 years after an author?s death, keeping the earliest versions of Disney?s mascot out of the public domain for another two decades.

With digital rights activists licking their wounds, The Economist entered the fray on their behalf. The conservative British magazine fired off a strongly worded editorial calling for ?a radical rethink? of current copyright laws. The original purpose of copyright, they point out, was ?the grant of a temporary government-supported monopoly on copying a work? so as to ?encourage the circulation of ideas by giving creators and publishers a short-term incentive to disseminate their work.? Its purpose was not, as Disney argued, and the Court ultimately agreed, to grant the creator a transferable property right. The editorial even suggests that ?the 14-year term of the original 18th-century British and American copyright laws, renewable once, might be a good place to start.?

However, The Economist continues, since shorter copyrights would throw hundreds of thousands of books, recordings and films into the public domain, those copyrights that remain in effect should be enforceable. That means allowing for the development of the copy-protection technologies that activists have strenuously opposed. ?Many cyber activists would loathe this idea. But if copyright is to continue to work at all, it is necessary. And in exchange for a vast expansion of the public domain, such a concession would clearly be in the interests of consumers.?
-Leif Utne

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