Log in

No account? Create an account

An idea for Copyrights...

I was watching a movie earlier and when the standard "do anything but watch this alone, in your house, with the curtains drawn and we'll sue you for so much money that your grandkids will spend their lives panhandling to pay us off" warning came out I got to thinking about copyright.

It boggles my mind that the copyright system in the US (and much of the world for that matter) has reached the state that it's in now. It's really rather depressing when you think about it. I look at my movie collection and I find a large number of grey market discs for movies and tv shows that either haven't made it to the US yet and/or are priced ridiculously high in their region 1 format. I look at my book collection and I find a fair number of books that are out of print and can't be enjoyed by people at large.

I also thought about the 4 or 5 different versions of movies which seem to be getting released with depressing regularity (theatrical version, extended version, unrated version, super-special director's cut version, airline version, etc...) in a fairly transparent effort to double dip and get the die hard fans to buy multiple copies of essentially the same movie.

Then I got to thinking about old movies, music, and books that end up orphaned because their copyright holder is hard to track down or just doesn't care about them. I thought back to some of the RIAA debacles of years past where the record labels actually claimed that they didn't know exactly what they owned, but they knew it was a lot.

Then I thought about a way to if not fix the copyright mess, at least make it more friendly to us, the consumers.

Instead of just granting an exclusive copyright for a creative work, a commercial copyright[1] should also entail a responsibility to keep that work available to the public (at least in a digital format) for the duration of the copyright. In this day and age, what copyrighted material couldn't be preserved digitally in some form? Books could become PDF files, CDs and DVDs could be archived on hard drives, photographs could be stored digitally, etc... For however long someone was granted a commercial copyright and wanted to maintain it (and especially when corporations like Disney lobbied to extend their copyrights long after the original creators' deaths) they would be responsible for making that copyrighted work available to people in some reasonable/current format and it would have to be available for sale at a reasonable price (i.e. a digital copy of a book, CD, movie, photograph couldn't cost $1,000 dollars... especially if it was only provided as a download, i.e. no physical media).

Copyright would still have an upper limit, but if an an individual or corporation decided to release something into the public domain they could notify something like the Library of Congress (which should also at least have digital copies of the copyrighted work) and they'd be off the hook for providing it to the public. They might also need to renew their copyright (just like we renew our driver's licenses) every 5 or 10 years (a period of time short enough so that if a company dissolved or an individual died there would still be a good chance of retrieving their work if necessary) up to the maximum allowed and failure to do so could serve as an implied release into the public domain. At that point the LoC could handle the distribution and availability aspect of the law and people would be charged a reasonable maintenance fee (i.e. something that would help cover bandwidth, storage (digital or physical) and general archival/retrieval expenses).

While this might seem a bit hard for small bands or authors, I think it could be designed to be easy enough that anyone could maintain their copyright interest without too much difficulty. If the LoC was the de facto storage repository for all copyrighted works, a copyright holder wouldn't even need to keep copies of their work around. They could easily obtain a copy of their works from the LoC and resell them to someone who inquired about it with a reasonable markup (as a copyright holder it would be their right after all).

Ultimately, it seems that if a copyright is something that benefits the entity that owns it then it would seem only fair that they should have some responsibilities associated with that right/benefit and being required to be capable of providing a copy of their works (at a profit) to the public seems like a reasonable obligation to someone who can restrict who can or cannot make copies of their work.

[1] - It occurs to me there should be a distinction between a commercial and private copyright. Your home movies, vacations photos etc... would have a private copyright which would be exempt from having to provide copies to the public. Perhaps even small commercial ventures could be exempt, but once they reached a certain point or scale the change in copyright would come into effect (e.g. someone in a garage band selling CDs, or a small/private photographer could be exempt, but MGM, Sony, Random House etc... shouldn't). Maybe calling it corporate copyrights or commodity copyrights would make more sense. I'm not sure about exactly where the division should be, but I think the general idea is clear, something that's a one of a kind or one of a very small number would be treated one way, something that's produced as a commodity item couldn't arbitrarily be removed from the market at the whim of it's copyright holder.


That's an interesting idea and it does seem to have merit for certain types of things... I was really wondering about limited edition stuff though until I got to your footnote. For example, my friend joe's nature photography prints are all sold as limited editions. People will pay more for an item that is expected to be "rare" so telling someone "if you stop selling that someone else gets to sell it" would totally kill the whole limited edition thing. But then I kinda have to wonder - why should only small guys be able to sell limited edition stuff? A limited edition barbie doll is still of value to the collector that owns it, even if Matel is a giant (though I suppose that's probably covered under trademark instead so maybe it was a bad example).
Yeah, I added the footnote when I was thinking about the things that people I know do. I think a key factor is whether or not the copyrighted work in question is a commodity (or whether it's treated as one). A limited-edition work is generally of much higher quality than the same item as a commodity item (e.g. signed limited-edition run of a book is a far cry from the paperback version sold in a supermarket) and that could be factored in somehow.

Honestly, I don't think limited-editions should be exclusive to small operators so the copyright idea could easily be a function of how many of a thing you're planning to sell. Ultimately the public value of a copyright is in giving creative people a reason to create things (i.e. the ability to have a monopoly on something you create) but part of the value to that monopoly is that once a thing has reached a certain level of popularity, the creator shouldn't be able to deprive the public of the very thing they've created a value for.

Harry Potted and Disney movies would be a good example. The value of those copyrighted works is in direct relation to their popularity, but it seems like Disney has perfected the art of making their classic movies scarce in order to justify raising the price when they do offer them once in a long while. Which is all fine and good from a business perspective, but what about kids who grow up not being able to enjoy those "classics" because the copyright holder has decided that it's not worth it to them to make a run of DVDs yet? It seems that as a creator, having to make your work available to the public if it's popular is a small price to pay if it's really popular. It seems unfair for copyright holders to be able to effectively "take their ball and go home" once they've made an effort to popularize their work (as a commodity).

I'm still definitely sorting through my thoughts on this though. I like the idea, but obviously there are lots of things and details to consider.
Heh, it's late, I forgot to tie in the Harry Potter reference.

In that case I'm reminded that when the last book was released people were somewhat upset that the publisher didn't make an effort to release digital versions of it for people who don't believe in buying books or who don't want to lug around the doorstop sized book. People wanted to be able to put it on their PDAs and read it on the go.

The publisher didn't do that so people did it themselves and within days not only was there a digital English version, but iirc, there were versions in multiple foreign languages. All done by volunteers who wanted the item presented a certain way.

Now that's probably a bad example of preserving copyright, but it illustrates my point about how copyright holders really should try to provide the public with what they want once they have something that popular. Once it's something that is going to make that much money and be such a significant cultural element, then the copyright holders shouldn't be able to take it away from the public. They don't need to provide people with a nice hardback copy, but providing a digital file that can be accessed easily shouldn't be difficult or unreasonable to ask.
I don't know if it exists for Windows, but on Mac OS X there's a program called VLC. VLC can be set as your default DVD player and I'm told it ignores regions altogether.

And it really isn't the creator/owner's responsibility to make something available. If they don't want to make money, it's their own stupid fault. We suffer a little, but honestly there are more than enough awesome things out there for our interests to be occupied with. Of course, I'm a dirty libertarian ;) so what do I know? [/snark]

Luckily, if something isn't currently licensed in the US, you should be free and clear to download it until it becomes so, which may be never. I've got a few animes on my HD that will never see the American sun.