June 17, 2003 · Lessig
Or at least, in the best of all possible worlds it would be good criticism. He says we need more radical reform. He worries about the burden on creators. True, the registration system was broken — because a government agency ran it. That needs to be fixed if any rebirth of registration is to do any good.
But the point about the need for something more radical bothers me. Sure, absolutely, we need something more. But how are we going to get there? There is no substantial push by ordinary people for the public domain. (Of course, there are 13,000 extraordinary people who get this, but only when you multiply them by 1,000 will we have a movement.)
Why don’t ordinary people get it? Because few understand why the public domain is valuable. Why don’t more see why the public domain is valuable? Because today the public domain is over 75 years old. It is ancient history for us, irrelevant to much of ordinary culture.
If the public domain were as young as it was for most of our history (30 years old, max), then losing it would mean something to most people. If the work of the 1960s and 1970s could easily be built upon, then taking that work away would excite a revolution. But the (brilliant) strategy of the copyright extremists has been to slowly remove the public domain, by slowing extending copyright. (Remember Hal in 2001, as Dave turns off his brain?) They have succeeded in making it irrelevant to most. The question now is how to make it relevant again.
In my view, reclaiming it would make it relevant. Exploding the content within the public domain in a context where it can be built upon and spread (ie, now, with the internet) will make people see again why the public domain is important. And if they see that, then they will again defend it.
It is this first step that the Eldred Act would achieve. The revival of a registration requirement would move content into a public domain quickly. (You can see the point with this Cabinet Magazine graphic.) And only then might we expect a public to demand more.
There are many who have written brilliantly about what is right in this context. Rimmer’s piece is an addition to that. But the hard problem is how to make the right real. That is what this movement needs now.