It’s obvious from today’s ruling in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case that copyright law will never revert back to what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Corporate interests will be able to continue to buy extensions to copyright law to prevent the overwhelming majority of works made after 1924 from falling into the public domain unless for some odd reason it gets abandoned.
The problem is that when you and I want something, all we have to offer to our congressmen is our vote every two or six years, and maybe a campaign contribution. Disney doesn’t vote, although its employees do, but Disney can give a congressman or a political party more money in a year than I’ll earn in the next decade.
The result is that companies like Disney can profit off the public domain (that’s where they got The Jungle Book–author Rudyard Kipling didn’t make a dime off the Disney movie) without ever putting anything into the pot. Movies like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, which would be public domain by now if the Sonny Bono Copyright Act hadn’t passed in 1998, remain locked up.
I doubt the public domain issue is something that’s going to energize the masses enough to force the issue into Congress. At least not in the short term. Most people have no clue what “public domain” means. They just know that around Christmas, suddenly 50 of their cable channels start playing It’s a Wonderful Life 24 hours a day. If any of them ever bother to ask, they find out it’s because the movie is in the public domain and anyone can broadcast it without paying for it. Then they shrug their shoulders and reach for the remote and look for tanks or bulldozers or football.
But this is a battle we have to fight.
Since writing to our Congressmen is futile–I may do it anyway, hoping that maybe my word carries a couple of grams’ worth more weight since I have produced a number of copyrighted works–we’re going to need to resort to something else: Civil disobedience. If a law can’t be counted on to be kept by 70 percent of the populace, it’s not enforcable and the law will chance. The most recent example of this is speed limits.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to Gnutella and Kazaa and download everything in sight. As much as I may disagree with Aimee Mann’s political views, she has more than the right to be paid–she has the need to be paid. She’s not working a steady 40-hour-a-week job so she needs those record royalties to pay her bills. Taking her music without paying for it is no different from withholding my 40-hour-a-week paycheck.
But when the copyright would have rightfully expired by now anyway, I see no moral or ethical problem in taking it.
For example, there’s the Non-US Online Books Page that lists old books that are out of international copyright but not U.S. copyright. Books make you look smart, right? Download them, unwrap them with a text editor like Metapad, and then you can load them into Word and set the font and size to whatever you want. Duplex-print them (or print the odd pages, let the pages cool, then put the pages back in and print the even pages) and comb bind them or put them into cheap $1 3-ring binders, or take up bookbinding as a hobby. Fill up your bookshelves with free books you may not necessarily ever read. Be sure to include legitimate public domain books in your collection as well.
Or, since I know the majority of you won’t do that, amass a huge collection of early ’50s rock’n’roll tunes. The copyrights have expired in Europe. Import cheap European bootlegs, or get them through Gnutella. Share them with friends. Record a shelf full of CDs. If your hobby is music, sample and re-use the living daylights out of them. If you’re a European musician, do us States-siders a favor and use a 1950s-era sample in every song you record so that your colleagues over here start wondering why they can’t do that.
Sometimes civil disobedience is the only way to overthrow oppressive laws.