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May 9 2014

Assailing Copyright Law

Charlotte Hays

For those of us who have earned a bit of our savings from books, the matter of the copyright is vitally important.

So I learned with great interest of report about the duration of the copyright produced by the R Street Institute. R Street, which describes itself as a think tank with “outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government,” does some excellent work. So I was ready to love the report.

The report purports to be a conservative approach to copyright. That sounded promising. Gaining the benefits of your work product—well, that’s a conservative ideal. And it is the copyright that enables me to reap the benefits from my own work product.

Unfortunately, the R Street paper, which bears the Orwellian title “Guarding Against Abuse — Restoring Constitutional Copyright,” is anything but conservative. In fact, it would deprive Grubb Street denizens such as myself of long-term fruits of our own labors.

The R Street report is described on the organization’s website in glowing, free-market terms:

The report examines how copyright terms today are completely unmoored from the original public meaning of copyright in the Constitution, and how this incredible disparity hinders learning, destroys our cultural legacy, hurts innovation and the general public but, most importantly, impedes filmmakers, artists, DJs and other content creators that need to be able to build upon the work of others to create new content — as we have done for centuries.

Translation: If I write something, "filmakers, artists, and DJS" should be able to use it for free much faster than now.

We love a lot of what comes out of R Street, but we have a bone to pick with this report.

Eventually, the book or other intellectual product goes into the public domain. There are no Jane Austen nieces making money from "Pride and Prejudice."

But if there are earnings, these earnings, from a conservative perspective, are for the creator and her heirs for as long as the law allows.

R Street wants to reduce that time.

In an article titled “Assailing Copyright Isn’t Conservative,” Steven Tepp, who represents the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on intellectual property rights issues, explains how, for all R Street’s talk about constitutional rights, this proposal runs directly against our values:

From the words and deeds of the Founders to the rulings of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts, it is clear that the American free-market system is designed to promote private-property rights, including copyright, as the best engine of economic growth and freedom of expression. The public domain has its place as a venerable and valuable aspect of copyright law and reasonable people can and do disagree about the best way to write copyright law. But proposals to slash the duration of copyright to expand “public property” simply aren’t conservative.

The proposal offered in the R Street paper is much less than conservative in other ways, too: It would subject copyright protection to numerous filing requirements and big tax increases. Under [R Street author Derek] Khanna’s proposal, copyright protection would last a scant twelve years unless the copyright owner repeatedly files renewal paperwork with the government. A total of four such filings would be required to get the new maximum copyright protection of 46 years — which would be the shortest of any country on earth (with the possible exception of a few countries that may have no copyright law at all).

The R Street report speaks of the “recapture of works that otherwise would be in the public domain” as something that “represents one of the biggest thefts of public property in history.”

Tepp notes that R Street seems to think that control of one’s work product is “a theft from the proletariat.”

But here’s the deal: I am the member of the proletariat who produces (sometimes with a coauthor) my books.

Shortening copyrights merely means that the producers--proles like me--don't get to benefit from our own work for as long as we should.

We love you over there at R Street, but we must respectfully disagree on the copyright issue.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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