February 23, 2009

What is copyright?

Think about it for a moment. Can you think of anything in your little world that is not owned by someone? You own your car, your clothing, the computer on which you’re reading this. You (or your landlord/mortgage holder) own your home. So what is there that is not owned?

Not much.

Some things are considered public domain. Not much in the realm of real estate would be public domain, except maybe the high seas. If you found a basket of pencils on a table with a sign stating “take one”, maybe, but mostly the term applies to intellectual property (music, art, books, software, web pages, etc.).

For the most part, stuff belongs to someone, and you need permission from the owner to use it. Intellectual property is protected by copyright, which is a legal concept allowing the owner to control reproduction of the work. The concept is quite ancient, dating to the old, British Statute of Anne in 1710. In the United States, copyright laws are rooted in the constitution and covered by U.S. Code Title XVII. The intent of copyright is to ensure that the creator is fairly compensated for their efforts for a period of time. At one time a copyright existed for 20 years from the date of the item's creation. Sounds fair, right?

But all that has changed over time. Now, depending on international jurisdiction, copyright could extend up to 100 years beyond the death of the author or artist. Still sound fair?

Okay, pause a moment and try to think of popular little songs you've known. Which do you think might just be the most popular little ditty in the English language? If Happy Birthday to you isn’t #1, I’m sure it is right up there in the top 10.
Did you know that HBTY has an active copyright?

It is a long and twisted tale, but the rights to HBTY are owned by Time-Warner. So, next time you’re having a party for the little one, you better get out your checkbook and pay the royalties. I’ve been doing a little web research, and the number of infringement lawsuits and royalty demands I’ve found are numerous; with respondents ranging from Irving Berlin to Western Union.

Mary Had a Little Lamb, it seems, is public domain.


Mark said...


Do I assume you've read Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig? If you haven't.....


It's well worth reading. I rather like his "dollar a year" model of keeping copyright live, requiring active effort from the copyright holder to keep stuff covered - and I say that as a professional creative who makes his living slinging pixels.

Mule Breath, said...

Good catch. The reason for the post was a piece I watched on Free Speech TV (FSTV) a few days ago, on which Lessig was interviewed. It was part of a themed, full-day broadcast on which the HBTY saga was also covered.


FSTV is about as far left wingnut as one can get (think polar opposite to Geert Wilders) without falling off the edge of the Earth, but they do have some interesting interviews with folks you generally won't see elsewhere. Helps balance ones perspective.

Rogue Medic said...

The Disney Law is covered very well by Lessig. I haven't seen anything on it in a while, but I remember somebody, I think it was Lessig, pointing out that Disney would not be in business if this law existed back when Disney started. Almost all of their stuff was repackaged stories written by others.

as far left wingnut as one can get without falling off the edge of the Earth,

I didn't think you could fall off the edge of the Earth on the left side. :-)