In which copyright is annoying

Dec 20 2010 Published by under Praxis

With all the ferment over copyright law currently, I don't understand why someone hasn't pointed out that from a recordkeeping perspective, tying copyright law to author lifespan is an incredibly bad idea, amounting to an immense research tax on would-be preservers and reusers of culture.

I was recently asked about reuse of a published photograph by Paul Regnard, a French psychologist. Don't bother with Wikipedia; he doesn't have an article there, nor was he important enough to make the pages of the scientific and medical biographical dictionaries I could lay hands on. It is possible to triangulate via Google and some fossicking about that he died in 1927.

So French copyright terms, as best I can tell, currently mirror ours (life plus seventy years), with one wrinkle: if you died in active service, your copyright term lasts an extra thirty years. (What was French copyright law like in 1927? When the term was extended to its current length, did the extension apply retroactively? Darned if I know. If anyone would like to enlighten me, feel free.) So if Regnard died in active service, his photographs are still copyrighted. If not, not.

I'm not planning to investigate 1920s service records for France. I'm just not. So there the matter rests.

Frankly, as a pragmatic tradeoff I'd accept a longer copyright term (odious though that would be) in exchange for a more precise one, such that I wouldn't have to fuss about French service records. I mean, merde.

6 responses so far

  • I am wondering when there may be a call for a standardized International Copyright Law. It just makes sense in an era that one can cull information/pictures/text in a drop of a hat from anywhere in the world.

  • The EU copyright extension from life+50 to life+70 was retroactive; I believe this was required by the EU directive. But I don't know if the wartime aspect of the French law was.

    That said, "longer term for a more precise one" is a devil's bargain. There's always going to be a push from some quarters for longer copyrights, and indeed much of the push uses supposedly simpler copyright simplification as a justification. (But somehow the "harmonization" seems to keep requiring longer and longer terms, to match whoever's pushed terms out the farthest in any given case.)

    Copyright clearance is always going to involve some degree of uncertainty (there will always be matters like when the copyright term clock actually starts for a given work, whether the work involves more than one copyright, and so on). But *shorter* terms can mean that there will be more instances where works are simpler to clear. ("Oh, it's that old? Well, that's old enough for all copyrights to have expired.") Some reintroduction of simple formalities will also help, both for tracking down rightsholders and for getting work that no longer has significant economic value into the public domain that much faster. (Formalities are forbidden by the Berne Convention, but the problem of orphan works is big enough with the current length of terms that even some rightsholders representatives are starting to speculate out loud how some simple formalities might not be a bad idea.)

  • Rob Knop says:

    There are calls for international standardization- generally, that means going with the most severe terms anybody can find.

    Most discussion over copyright is seriously stilted. It's usually phrased in yerms of author's rights. That basic phtasing makrs it natural to think that mor is better. However, copuright is just as much censorship: government restrictions on what you can remix and publish. In these terms, it may be easier to believe that as little copyright as necessary is what society should want. (We do want creators to be able to afford to create, so I doubt anybody has a workable zero copyright model.)

    Likewide, to the point of this post, obfuscated and confusing copyright creates effective censorship, even if not strictly legal censorship.

  • Markk says:

    Copyright ought to be free for say 28 years, after that to current limits or less ( 56 years ), it ought to cost money on a sliding scale of more and even a lot more and a huge amount as time goes by. This would "privatize" things so people can't use my tax money to enforce exclusions on me for what I can see. If you don't pay - it runs out.
    That would also solve the old copyright problem where there the authors whereabounts are unknown.

  • antipodean says:

    Because people who die on active service tend to be quite young and extending their copyright helps to provide for the widows and families.

    In 1927 they were still reeling from millions of young men being killed in WW1 and the social flow-on effects of that.

  • rknop says:

    antipodean : fixed-term copyrights would work for that too. If copyright lasted (say) 28 years, then the copyrights falling back to the family of young people killed would still provided for them for some time. (People in active service tend to be younger than 40, which is the absolute youngest you'd be while having a valuable copyright on something published 28 years earlier; 50 is probably more realistic!)