January 20, 2003 · Lessig
Doc has a brilliant and absolutely correct diagnosis at the American Open Technology Consortium website about how we lost in Eldred. Copyright is understood to be a form of simple property. The battle in Eldred thus sounded like a battle for and against property. On such a simple scale, it was clear how the majority of the Court would vote. Not because they are conservative, but because they are Americans. We have a (generally sensible) pro-property bias in this culture that makes it extremely hard for people to think critically about the most complicated form of property out there — what most call “intellectual property.” To question property of any form makes you a communist. Yet this is precisely our problem: To make it clear that we are pro-copyright without being extremists either way.
So deep is this confusion that even a smart, and traditionally leftist social commentator like Edward Rothstein makes the same fundamentally mistake in a piece published Saturday. He describes the movement, of which I am part, as “countercultural,” “radical,” and anti-corporate. Now no doubt there are some for whom those terms are true descriptors. But I for one would be ecstatic if we could just have the same copyright law that existed under Richard Nixon.
Our problem is, as Doc rightly points out, that we have so far failed to make it clear to the world who the radicals in this debate are. Until 1976, the average copyright term in the United States was 32.2 years (the maximum term was 56 years, but 85% failed to renew their copyright after 28 years). In the last forty years, that term has tripled — every single work copyrighted today will remain copyrighted for an average of at least 90 years. Rothstein says that lots has entered the public domain since 1928. Indeed, he is right. But that was because copyrights expired every year between 1928 and 1962, and copyright until 1976 required renewal for an author to get the benefit of a maximum term. Under current law, however, absolutely nothing created now will enter the public domain for at least a century. And because of the Sonny Bono Act, nothing will enter the public domain again in the United States until 2019.
How to change the debate is the hardest thing. But rather than philosophy, perspective and pragmatics seems the best way. Build a public domain (which CreativeCommons will help to do), and show people and companies how the public domain helps them. Indeed, of all the companies out there, this is the one point Disney should certainly understand: Now that they have won the Eldred case, they should be racing to embrace the Eldred Act. No company has depended more upon the public domain. The Eldred Act would give them much more to build upon.