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Intellectual Property Rights
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January 04, 2011, 04:28 PM
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Reading up on how Rep. Howard Berman (D-Disney) works to extend copyrights (while many others, such as Lawrence Lessig, consider copyright laws the work of the devil), I was reminded that I`ve never been persuaded why I should much care pro or con about the copyright controversy. Every time I try to think it through, it all seems to come out a wash.

For example, Matthew Yglesias today laments all the books and movies from 1954, such as Lord of the Flies, Horton Hears a Who, and On the Waterfront, that would have entered public domain these days if the old 56 year copyright had been maintained.

Today, copyright extends for 70 years after the date of the author`s death. This length seems pretty absurd, and it creates a tiny gentry of people who have inherited lucrative copyrights. For example, Hugh Grant`s selfish character in About a Boy has never bothered to work because his father composed the 1950s novelty Christmas song Santa`s Supersonic Sleigh.

But, I have a hard time seeing how length of copyright does much, pro or con, for the quality of entertainment.

I went to the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain and was underwhelmed by their vision of a utopia in which Creature from the Black Lagoon enters public domain this year:

Think of the movies from 1954 that would have become available this year. You could have showed clips from them. You could have showed all of them. You could have spliced and remixed and made documentaries about them. (You could have been a contender!)
Or you could mash up your favorite movies from 1954 and release Creature from the Waterfront. But it all sounds pretty tedious.

It seems to me that a lot of the anti-copyright enthusiasts are stuck in an adolescent fan-boy stage where you just want to remake your favorites and you don`t feel worthy of making up your own stuff.

I`m reminded of this story that Keith Richards likes to tell about how the early Rolling Stones just wanted to perform cover versions of American songs, but manager Andrew Oldham kept telling them about how much money there was in writing original songs. So, he locked Mick and Keith in a kitchen until they`d written a song. After they`d eaten all the food in the kitchen, they decided they might as well try writing a song. So they came up with "As Tears Go By."

Warning: not all of Keith Richards` memories are wholly reliable.<