Friday, September 26, 2008

Copyrights, and in case y'all were wondering.

The James R. Strickland aka Ryan Strickland listed in this article as being sued by Activision for allegedly copying and distributing Call of Duty 3 is not me. To my knowledge, he's not related to me. I don't know who he is, but his chestnuts are clearly roasting.

As someone who makes a living from the copyright system, I'm kind of mixed on this kind of story. In this case, assuming they can prove both copying and distribution, I think they are acting reasonably to protect the intellectual property they've created at (undoubtedly) great expense. And on the other hand, it annoys me deeply that almost all of our culture today is copyrighted and owned by some enormous corporation that really doesn't care about the cultural value. People have asked - and indeed complained - about the number of Shakespeare quotes in Looking Glass. I'm going to come clean here and say that many of those were originally quotes from movies and TV shows, and I changed them to 400 year old quotes for safety's sake. It gets worse when you try to write a novel that involves music written in the last century, and the prices the RIAA charges to use lyrics (after vetting your presentation - naturally you're supposed to trust THEM with copyrighted, unpublished work) are exorbitant. The only saving grace is that you can't copyright titles, so I can at least name the songs.

Eternal copyright, which we are fast approaching courtesy of Disney et al, means that cultural artifacts *never* belong to the culture they were created for, in, and ultimately from. The culture is never enriched as a culture by the ability of subsequent creatives to build on the work of their forebears. Ultimately, eternal copyright dooms a creative work to irrelevance. What happens is that eventually, nobody can remember who exactly owns a given copyright, so the work then *cannot* be used until the copyright times out. People then either take the risk and violate the copyright (there's nothing like a successful derivative work to bring the true copyright owner(s) out of the woodwork to sue) or, more likely, the culture shrugs and moves on, and whatever gem was created is ultimately lost to the world, its contributions, its inspirations, its ability to affect people and give the creator's thoughts to a new generation of people are ultimately wasted in the name of filthy lucre.

And yet, I would like to be paid for my work. Preferably for as long as possible. Worse, I would like to have some say whether my work is made into snuff porn or not. (er no. Please.) Your work - and how it's used - reflects on you, whether you like it or not, whether it should or not, whether you had any say in how it was used or not. So I understand the impulse to keep the work controlled forever. Even worse: contrary to Doctorow, I'd rather not make my living by speaking engagements and such. Not everyone is equipped to create and maintain a cult of personality. (Not to say that his fiction isn't good - it very much is - and more power to him for his successful marketing strategy.)

Somewhere, there's a balance to be struck between these two points. Somewhere, the needs of the content creators to eat and the need for the society to be enriched by the content created within it need to be balanced. The Berne Convention, unfortunately, pretty much hamstrings the ability of signatory states to set reasonable copyright time limits - they require 50 years after the death of the author - but real progress can be made in abandoned copyrights, if we implement a system by which copyrights (or the ability to collect statutory damages for them, at least, as was the law in 1988 when the U.S. joined the convention) must be maintained. If someone, at minimum, had to go to a website or similar mechanism every 10 years and assert that they own the copyright, works where the copyright holders are unknown, at least, could fall into the public domain. This would be a start. It would be something.


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