Copyright law in America gives individuals, and corporations, a paralyzing stranglehold on our culture. Though its proponents claim that it protects creativity, copyright law's exaggerated length and scope actually chokes off artistic genius and chains our country to whims of few prima donnas who do not represent our culture at all.
The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 is atrocious to even contemplate:
The Act extended these [copyright] terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier. Copyright protection for works published prior to January 1, 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.
Now you know why every piece of recorded music after 1923 requires a royalty. Even "Happy Birthday to You" -- originally written in 1893, as "Good Morning to You" -- cannot be performed in public without a fee.
The stifling effect is enormous. Movies and DVDs are released with altered sound tracks for fear of litigation. More often than realized, creative works are not released at all, because the copyright holder is not even known; and no one dares take the risk.
Law after law was passed to give the media conglomerates protections afforded to no other industry. In exchange for this generosity, the media has been ruthless.
The media giants tried to stop home videotaping until the Supreme Court rebuked them in the Betamax case in 1984. The media conglomerates were, and still are, taking a percentage of every audio cassette or recordable media sold, under the theory that it is being used to copy music. The cost of the CD of your preacher's sermons has an built-in tax payable to Hollywood.
Subway street performers now have to pay royalties. Internet forums are sued for quoting news reports. The Recording Industry Assoc. of America (RIAA) has sued middle-class people for ridiculous amounts of money over a few pirated music files.
Most outrageously, the media actually has delayed technology from being introduced in order to protect its royalty fiefdoms. Some groups are more equal than others.
Even the constitution must give way to these moguls. Recently, the media lobbied for SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) protections which would have infringed on free speech and led to internet censorship. Personal internet sites, newspaper sites, etc. could have been hit with search engine de-listing for suspected piracy, while technical giants like Google and Yahoo would have been liable for their search engine results, along with hosting companies like Hostgator. Safe harbor provisions would have been voided. There was even concern that foreign dictators would use copyright provisions as an excuse to crush dissent.
The internet would have been destroyed...but the media did not care, just as long as they got their royalties. It took the technical giants to finally warn Congress that technology created more jobs and wealth than Hollywood, and that Congress was gutting the First Amendment to pander to pretentious media barons. However, new versions of SOPA are being lobbied for. Hollywood won't quit.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)'s former spokesman, the late Jack Valenti, wanted copyright protection for forever minus a day. The greed knows no bounds.
So how did this insanity start?
Oddly enough, initially, the USA had relatively lax copyright laws. The British would complain about how we published their works without paying royalties. Over time, however, U.S. law was brought into compliance with European and International conventions and with the demands of American media groups.
By 1998, the copyright on Mickey Mouse was about to run out. Disney's beloved Mickey could then end up as fodder for pornographers. Think of the kiddies! Hollywood was the one bright spot in America's balance of trade. It had to be protected.
The media twisted congressmen's and senators' arms to get extensions. What politician would brave the bad press that would follow a principled refusal to save Mickey Mouse? So the copyright was extended.
Of course, this should have been avoided. Mickey Mouse should have been allowed to pass into the public domain, like Tom Sawyer, Romeo and Juliet, and Beethoven's music. These are now part of the Western canon. The threat of misuse by pornographers was exaggerated. Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher survived public domain with their reputations intact.
Software companies have picked up the idiocy. Software is now awarded copyright protection, instead of the more logical patent protections. They also use this to control markets and raise prices.
Copyright law, as it stands now, inhibits creativity rather than protecting it. It subsidizes mediocrity, which is protected against the consequences of inferior art, with royalties from past achievements. Hollywood can self-indulge the production of deviance, while ignoring classic themes which have a greater audience appeal. Let the media dinosaurs die a natural death, and a million media mammals will emerge from the smoke, more attuned to meeting the public's demand.
Imagine if technical patents operated under the same set of laws that operate for copyrights. We would have been paying royalties on the light bulb to General Electric up until 1999. One can only imagine the horrific cost of a home computer if every component in the device that had been invented in the previous 120 years were still drawing royalties. Technology would grind to a halt. No industrial nation would tolerate it -- and we should not tolerate it with copyrights, either.
So what is the answer?
Genius should be protected, but equitably. Hollywood, the music industries, book publishers -- and now Microsoft and Apple -- operate on hard technology that is afforded only a limited duration of protection. Why should media (or software) content be given preferential treatment over technology?
There is no reason why an artist's creativity is more valuable than a scientist's or an engineer's. Why is an author's work considered more precious than that of a research lab that requires hundreds of millions of dollars in investment?
Copyrights should not extend any longer than patents: 20 years. That's good enough for technology and medicine, and it is more than enough for art -- or Windows or Apple OS.
The only truly creative things coming out of Hollywood are ways to cheat the public.
Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who is neither Arab, Jewish, nor Latin. He runs a website, http://latinarabia.com/, where he discusses the subculture of Arabs in Latin America. He wishes his Spanish were better.