Public Domain Wisdom From A Children’s Book

I’m very interested in the subject of Copyrights and the Public Domain.  I happen to believe that the length of copyrights have been extended way too far.  When the Constitution was written, copyrights lasted for 14 years.  After that, you needed to apply for a one-time renewal of 14 years.  Over the years, Congress extended copyright terms and made the renewal automatic.  As it stands now, a work copyrighted by a single individual stays under copyright for 70 years after the author’s death.  A work copyrighted by a company stays under copyright for 120 years from the date of publication.

To give an example of how long this is, take this blog post here.  It is under my copyright and will be for 70 years after I die.  I’m 33 years old as I write this.  Let’s assume that I live until 83 (to give nice, round numbers).  This means that this blog post will remain under my copyright until the year 2129.  Of course, I won’t be around to see the copyright run out.  Assuming each of my children (and their children, etc) have their own children at age 30 (again, to keep things nice and round), this blog post will go out of copyright when my great-great-great-grandchild is 5 years old (NHL’s current age).

Why is this a problem?  Well, for one thing, copyright was designed to help encourage innovation.  You get a temporary monopoly on your created work and in exchange the work passes into the Public Domain after a short while.  The temporary monopoly acts as a financial motivator and the Public Domain helps inspire new works.  I’ve had no problem arguing the first part:  How does having my decedents retaining ownership of something 70 years after I pass away motivating me to create new works?  Am I going to rise up out of the ground zombie-style and create new blog posts?  (Latest Post: BRAAAAIIIINNNNSSSS!!!!!)

The second part, however, has eluded my argumentative skills.  I know that a rich Public Domain is important but was never able to fully argue why.  And, more troubling, I’ve been confronted more and more with people who question why we need the Public Domain at all.  Why, they argue, can’t copyrights last forever?  After all, your ownership of your house doesn’t expire and can be passed down to your children.

The immediate argument that came to mind was that, as a work gets older, it gets harder to track down the owner.  There are some video games from the 1980’s whose copyright ownership is unknown.  How could we hope to track down the proper owner of Romeo and Juliet after over 400 years?  Besides this argument, however, I couldn’t come up with a coherent argument for the existence of the Public Domain.

Then, one night, it came to me from the most unlikely of sources.  I was reading NHL his bedtime story, Magic Tree House #30: Haunted Castle on Hallows Eve by Mary Pope Osborne.  We had finished the story itself and were reading the Notes From The Author when I came upon this quote:

Old tales and poetry from around the world are a constant source of inspiration for storytellers. Creating something new from something old allows us to link hands with people of the past. Or, as Morgan le Fay once said to Jack and Annie (in Magic Tree House #16, Hour of the Olympics), "The old stories are always with us. We are never alone."

That was it.  If we allowed the Public Domain to become extinct, we’ll lose touch with that link.  Yes, new stories will be created, but there is something to be said for using old ideas and putting new spins on them.  Disney (one of the big proponent of extending copyright terms) has made many successful films off of stories in the Public Domain.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alice in Wonderland, and The Jungle Book were all in the Public Domain when Disney released their movie versions.  Copyrighted works aren’t physical property.  They should be allowed to pass into the public’s ownership after a short period of time so that the public can use those works to create new works.  Thank you, Mary Pope Osborne, for putting it more eloquently than I ever could have.