Just How Long Should Copyrights Last?

Before you start to read too much of this article, take a quick look at the bottom of the screen on my website and check out the copyright information.  You’ll see a fairly common site on most websites: a Copyright symbol ©, followed by the years I’ve been writing this blog (from 2009, if you were curious) and thus have copyrighted material.

Now, a quick question for you: When do you think that that copyright will expire, and that you could (if you wanted) use the articles I wrote back in 2009 for your own purposes?  2024?  2041?  Maybe, if the copyrights last for a particularly long time, even something like 2057?

Actually, it’s even longer than that; as I noted before, copyrights (currently) last for the entirety of the producer’s life, plus 70 years.  Which means, if I were to (unfortunately) pass on tomorrow, you wouldn’t be able to legally use any of my works until 2083.

Maybe you aren't particularly interested in copying my articles, but consider: this means that all the media that is being produced by people who are currently alive can’t be (legally) used by others until at least seven decades from now.  And that’s assuming that said people happen to die off; if they live long and productive lives (and that should be the hope), it could be much, much longer, potentially well over a century.  All of this raises the question:

How Long Should Copyrights Last?

Actually, there’s multiple issues involved in this matter.  How long copyrights should last is a more complicated matter than it might seem, particularly with how we currently arrange copyrights (the ‘life of the artist plus seventy years’ thing), so let’s break it down into several sub issues, and look at the pros and cons of each:

Should Copyrights Last Entirely Throughout An Artist’s Life?

Pros: If you create a creative item, you should be able to profit from that creativity.  That’s the logic behind copyrights in general, and allowing those copyrights to last as long as an artist lives is the result.  It can take an artist years, perhaps even decades, to find a way to monetize their work, and allowing them to work throughout their lifetime on doing so could be a good thing.  Plus, as long as the artist survives, you’d think they’d be the best source of advice on how to use the copyrighted material effectively.

Copyright shield, to the rescue!
Copyright shield, to the rescue!

Cons: Making a copyright last for an artist’s life makes the length of the copyright highly variable; it could last for eight years or eight decades, depending on how long the artist lives.  Given the number of copyrights that are sold or licensed to corporations, it can mean that businesses unconnected to the artist end up depending on the artist to survive for a long period in order to profit from their license.

This last problem is countered in some respects by allowing copyrights to persist for a period after the artist dies, although that raises the question of:

How Long Should Copyrights Last After An Artist’s Death?

Pros: By allowing the descendants of artists to benefit from their works, people will be more motivated to do creative work.  After all, one reason that most people work is to help their children.  This also provides a more predictable period of time for a copyright to last; although people’s life spans aren’t known, if there is a set time after people die for the copyright to last (70 years, currently), it makes it more predictable for future planning of using the copyright, regardless of when the artist dies.

Cons: Upon death, the artist is no longer able to benefit from their work, making it a moot point (give or take) from their view. The descendants of the artists could be unmotivated to do their own work, as they could be simply benefiting from their ancestors. It’s worth remembering just how long after an artist’s death a copyright currently lasts: seventy years.  That’s a pretty long time, particularly when the person who actually created the work in question has passed on.  Your children’s children’s children (and possibly their children) could be benefiting from your work, through no effort of their own.  Plus, in many cases it’s corporations that have gotten the copyrights rather than descendants of the other original creators, anyway.  *cough*Disney*cough*)

Originally, copyrights were set for a limited time (14 years for engravers in 1735), allowing you (or those you permitted to use your copyrighted work) to benefit for a (fairly short) specific period and then having the work become public domain.  If that was the case, the question then comes back to our original issue:

Should Copyrights Have A Long Limit?

Pros: The longer artists are able to benefit from their work, the more likely they are to do said work.  The longer the copyright, the more valuable it becomes to artists and those who want to license it, and the more money the artist (and his or her licensee) can derive.  Longer copyrights mean more profit for artists (and those they wish to support), helping them to provide a living as an artist.

Cons: Longer copyrights mean that those people who could use the copyrighted material are unable to do so.  (Legally, anyway; more on that in a second.)  It can stifle creativity by preventing new artists from providing different takes on the characters or other copyrighted figures in previous material (think Dracula, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, any Greek god or hero, etc.).  It can end up preventing new artistic work from being created at all if the original artist decides not to do anything new with the copyrighted material.

Of course, all of this discussion of how long a copyright should last beats around the bush of an even larger issue:

Should Copyrights Exist At All?

Pros: All the arguments of how artists benefit from copyrights can be made here as well.  Without copyrights, there’s no guarantee that artists will be able to profit from their work; if other artists are faster and/or better at monetizing artistic works, the original artist could find themselves with no profit while other people benefit from what they've done.  (You see this already when copyrights are disputed.)  The media business and the artists who participate in it, as it currently exists, could find itself unable to profit.

Cons: It’s becoming increasingly hard to enforce copyrights as they stand.  Artistic materials are becoming cheaper and cheaper, with businesses and artists relying on unconventional methods to monetize their works.  (As is much of the subject of the appropriately named book Free.)  That’s even before you get into the matters of the finer points of copyrights and how it's possible to break them; for example, remember, you can buy a movie and not be able to play it in public, or transfer songs from one computer to another.

My Take on the Matter

You might have guessed from what I’ve written (particularly in the ‘Cons’), but I tend to lean toward the more limited level of copyright protection, far from the current ‘your copyright could last for more than a century if you stay healthy’.  I do think there should be some copyright protection (although after reading Free, I’m not sure that it’s possible to really prevent copyright infringement without enacting draconian enforcement on every digital device).  The length of time that such copyrights should last, though, is far lower than currently in existence.

How long?  I tend to lean towards the length postulated by would-be PhD Rufus Pollock: 14 years.  That gives you time to promote, market, and profit from your work, while allowing others to build on it after a reasonable amount of time.  That means I’d lose creative control of my first posts in 2023, but if I haven’t done anything to benefit from my efforts by then, I’m not sure that I’m going to succeed in another 70 years (to say not of my daughter having that much time once I’m dead).  The stifling of those who’d build on existing work more than counters any advantages that artists (and, I don’t think I can stress this enough, the companies who use their works *cough*Disney*cough*) get by longer control of their copyrighted work.

That’s my opinion on the matter.  What do you think about copyrights and the length they last?  What is the ideal length to benefit the original artists while allowing others to build on the existing works?  Given how many of Disney’s movies use fairy tales or other public domain works as their basis, how long do you think it’ll take before they end up biting themselves in the rump by retroactively extending copyrights so long that they can be sued by surviving descendants?

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