The Financial Times has an article on the current state of American copyright, and while the article itself mostly focuses on the Google Books brouhaha, it has a great title: “A Copyright Black Hole Swallows Our Culture”.
Once upon a time, three things held true. Copyrights were relatively short. You had to renew them (most people did not.) You didn’t get one unless you asked. Now none of those hold true. Copyright can last for more than 100 years. The result is that the world’s libraries are full of books that are still under copyright, commercially unavailable and, in many cases, “orphan works” with no known copyright holder. Copyright has exhausted its function, yet the works remain trapped in the cultural black hole.
Copyright is a horribly complex subject, and I am not an expert. But I is enough to know that most of the creative works of the 20th Century will not fall into the public domain during my lifetime – if ever.
Why is Public Domain important? The purpose of copyright law is to balance the rights and financial interests of artists against the interests of society at large. To this aim, authors of creative works are granted the rights to control the distribution of their work for a period of time, after which it becomes the property of everyone. This way, artists are given incentive to produce works, but society gets to benefit by adding the work to its culture.
The problem is, over the last century, American copyright laws have tilted the balance in favor of authors – or rather the companies that publish their works. At this point, a work is copyrighted for many years after the death of the author, and in some cases, more than a century.
Creative works are copyrighted long past its utility to the author (and their family), but also long past their relevance to society (except in rare cases). Publishing companies want to make sure they can control the financial rights to the works they publish until public interest has evaporated. Which is contrary to the public interest. On this basis, many suggest that our copyright law is broken.
There are alternatives, such as Creative Commons, but these are voluntary and by no means the norm.
Given how much of our culture is currently founded on sampling and cut-and-paste derivatives we do indeed face a cultural black hole. Law-abiding artists who rely on sampling cannot, without great expense, reference their own culture. They are limited to using works created in centuries past.
We (and anthropologists) can learn much about a culture from their artistic works. Those looking back at this period of time will be missing much of the information required to understand us.
This is not the only black hole we face. We are in the midst of a digital black hole as well, but this is a topic for tomorrow.