A lot of people seem to think that the argument for an extended, robust public domain is an argument for redistribution of wealth — that it’s about appropriating other peoples’ labor for widespread commercial exploitation. You know, commercial exploitation like giving books away completely for free.
In point of fact, the call for the public domain to grow is a recognition of the underlying social contract. Artists and creators contribute to the larger culture. In exchange for their contribution, they are given a time-limited exclusive right to commercially exploit their work. However, after a reasonable period of time, that contribution to the culture is to be treated as exactly that — a contribution to the culture. Eventually, the people at large are supposed to have free and unfettered access to the things that have become part of their lives, whether it’s an adult author wanting to write about a 120-year-old fictional detective or a 6-year old kid painting the Bat Signal on a tile at the local mall.
This free and unfettered access also serves to expand the culture further. William Shakespeare (living in a time when copyright did not mean creator exclusivity) adapted not only classical works from before his time, but also based plays on the works of his contemporaries. His most famous lost play, Cardenio, was an adaptation of a section of Cervantes’ Don Quixote — the first part of which had only recently been translated into English at the time.
Today, works in the public domain still fuel new artists’ creations. The results may be mixed, but the same could be said for art in general.
And if you find yourself wondering why L. Frank Baum’s work keeps getting adapted and re-adapted, the reason is simple: Baum’s work is among the most contemporary works actually turned over to the culture at large. Post-1923, copyrights get extended into oblivion and the culture with which we (as well as our parents, our grandparents, and some of our great-great-grandparents) grew up remains walled off and exclusive to its “creators” — who, in an increasing number of cases, are merely the people who wrote paychecks for the ones who actually did the creating.
Over on boing boing, you can read a perfect example of why this prolonged exclusivity is a problem. When the copyright is held exclusively by the people who wrote paychecks and that exclusivity is indefinitely extended, at some point they will decide that empty space is more valuable than culture.
“I work at the NBC storage warehouse in Englewood Cliifs, New Jersey,” the man said. “We’ve got several boxes of 16mm reels of film from ‘You Bet Your Life’ and we were wondering if Mr. Marx wants any of it. If not, we’re going to destroy all of it tomorrow.”
“Destroy it?” I asked increduously. “Why would you do that?”
“We’re trying to clear space for the newer shows. There’s a lot of stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s that we’re getting rid of. If Mr. Marx would like it, we’ll be happy to send all of the reels to him.”
“Where would you like us to put all of this?” one of the drivers asked me. “There are over 500 boxes and each box contains ten reels of film.”
5,000 reels of film, I thought to myself, as I watched the small army of UPS drivers putting boxes in any empty space they could find, including a now-vacated bedroom that once belonged to Groucho’s last wife from whom he was now divorced.
A month later, in early 1974, after checking the contents of the over 500 boxes and doing a little investigating, I had figured out that NBC had not only sent every reel of the original “You Bet Your Life” show, but also all the copies of “The Best of Groucho,” a syndicated version that included the show’s greatest episodes culled from the show’s original run.
For those of you keeping track at home, that was NBC in the 1970’s, willing to destroy over 5,000 reels of film from a show that is foundational to the medium and that represents hours of historical recordings of one of America’s greatest improvisational performers ever, all recorded when he was in his prime.
The stories are peppered throughout America’s cultural history. The 1960’s saw RCA Victor bulldozing their Camden warehouse with millions of wax cylinders and lacquer recording masters still inside. This past decade saw Les Moonves making the decision to lock up previously-lost episodes of “The Jack Benny Program” without making an effort to preserve them — especially heinous in this case, considering that the work was actually in the public domain. At the time, Moonves, made the decision to keep the masters under wraps because he didn’t want anybody else making money off of them, but he also made the decision not to remaster them because he didn’t see a market for them. (Luckily, Shout! Factory has just announced that they will be releasing them in July on DVD, suggesting this has been resolved on the side of the angels)
Did you ever wonder why it took so long for The Last Unicorn to be released on disc in widescreen? It was because the studio had carelessly misplaced the original master and could only find the master they had used to send a cropped version of the film to HBO and other television outlets. The widescreen version didn’t resurface until fans pointed out that a German company had released a widescreen laserdisc, meaning a widescreen master still existed.
That movie was made in 1982 and nearly lost because the studio didn’t see any economic value in keeping track of where they sent their negatives and masters.
We have lost and are still losing massive chunks of our culture every day to carelessness, apathy, and economic decisions that sell your memories for empty shelf space, and we may not realize they’re lost until the next time we go looking for them. Even when, occasionally, some executive decides preservation is preferable to destruction, they ship their masters off to be cared for at taxpayer expense while prohibiting taxpayer access.
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to copyright reform, but I know this: We need to be reminded that copyright is a social contract. We trade commercial exclusivity for the expansion of our culture. When one side takes the benefits, then continually screws the other side out of their recompense, that contract is being violated.