Crampton on copyright


Australia National University’s Dr George Barker suggested this week that New Zealand could do well by strengthening its legislation. He warned against the fair dealing exceptions that have crept into the law and asked, “Why not have law like property law – i.e. it lasts forever?” 

That is a good question.

Eric is being generous. I think it is a stupid question. But it allows a good answer from Eric:

Five years ago, Larrikin Music, who bought the rights to an old Australian folk song, sued Men At Work for including an 11-note flute sequence from it in their 80s-hit, “Down Under”. Where Men At Work had intended homage in its celebration of all things Australian, Larrikin, and the law, saw copyright infringement. 

But does that really go far enough? If an 11-note sequence counts as infringement, how much do modern artists owe Pachelbel’s descendants? The four-chord sequence making up the core of his Canon in D has been repeated in dozens, if not hundreds, of subsequent songs. Should evidence produced by Australia’s Axis of Awesome be used in copyright lawsuits by anyone who can document that, ten generations back, Johann Pachelbel was a great-great- grandfather? It seems absurd.

Even from the perspective of a profit-seeking artist, copyright is a double-edged sword. Stronger copyright both increases the rewards from having produced a piece of work and increases the cost of creating new works. Artistic works feed off each other. New works build on older traditions, reinterpreting old folk tales and old folk tunes for new generations. The Brothers Grimm collected and published older folk tales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the 1800s. In the 1900s, Walt Disney brought those stories to life in a new form. In the 2000s, well, it is hard for new innovation to occur because copyright law, at least in the United States, has frozen the usage of most important works produced since 1923. 

Why should copyright be limited? Because current creators draw on a global commons in their artistic creations. And future generations of artists deserve a commons too.

A good answer indeed.

I think copyright should apply for the life of the creator plus 20 years. That gives an incentive to innovate, but provides a commons for our future.

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