The EU recently extended its copyright laws for audio recordings. Such recordings are now protected by copyright for 70 years, up from the previous 50-year term. Bizarrely, given the ephemeral nature of fashions in popular music, all recordings produced since 1941 are now in copyright. The campaign to extend copyright had been backed by the ageing singer, Cliff Richard, who stands to benefit financially from the change now that his 1959 number 1 hit Living Doll is back in copyright.

There has been a gradual creeping up of copyright terms, with a 120-year term in force in some cases in the US. It seems logical that there should be some copyright provision, but by the same token copyright laws seem out of kilter with any kind of reasonable approach. It seems amazing that in the case of printed works, copyright extends beyond the death of the author—and not just for a short while beyond his death, but for 70 years. The works of someone who died in 1942, some of which could have been written in the late nineteenth century, will still be covered by copyright. Of course this provides an income for his estate, but in no other walk of life is a profession expected to provide for relatives and heirs for 70 years after the person’s death. This provision is not currently extended to audio recording artists—although it is applied to composers and the writers of song lyrics—but an eventual extension of recording copyright to 70 years beyond the artist’s death has to be on the cards, given the general legislative drift in this area.

Copyright exerts a dead hand on culture. While writers need to make money and pharmaceutical companies need to be sure that expensive development of drugs will result in a profit, at some point writers’ works join the common heritage of culture, which belongs to us all, and drugs and industrial technology become part of the common pot of human innovation and invention that can rightly be drawn upon by all human beings. To argue for no copyright at all would seem to be misguided, but to argue for copyright of anything beyond 20 years restricts innovation, economic growth and the enjoyment and development of culture. This is because, in the first place, one person’s innovation forms the starting point for further innovation by others, and there must be a mechanism to move innovations into common use within a reasonable timeframe.

For famous cultural works, it is even clearer that they rapidly become part of society’s heritage and do not exclusively belong to the author/artist, but to all fans, readers and listeners, beyond a certain point. There is an irony in all this, of course, because the great works of Western European culture—works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, the Brontës, and compositions by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and Tchaikovsky—are generally out of copyright, although in the case of classical music, recordings are themselves subject to copyright provisions separate to those applying to the original compositions. Much of what passes for culture today—including Cliff Richard’s Living Doll—is meretricious pap for the masses. One could facetiously assert the rule that where anything was in copyright, it was by definition not worth reading or listening to. But regardless of whether the cultural production is itself of poor quality, the development of culture requires that works quickly exit copyright provision. Technological advancement also requires the sharing of inventions and scientific achievements.

In England, copyright dates back to the 1709 Act for the Encouragement of Learning that came into force in April 1710. That Act provided for a copyright term of 14 years for new works, and 21 years for books already in print. By 1731, when many works fell out of copyright, the issue came before the courts, resulting in decades of lawsuits, before the 1774 Donaldson v. Beckett case established that copyright was purely a creation of statute law; there was no common law right of copyright that publishers could fall back on. This is important for conservatives who see wisdom in our ancient common law: while modern economic realities require a development of the law, copyright law as currently in force has taken us a long way from the 14-year term originally enacted.

Copyright terms should be substantially reduced. As stated above, I would like to see a maximum 20-year term, and the immediate cessation of copyright with the death of the author/artist even where a 20-year term has not elapsed. Another issue of concern to me is the copyrighting of computer programmes. Many older computer programmes are no longer supported by developers, and computer programmes, unlike books and audio recordings, require support. It is still illegal to copy older versions of Microsoft programmes, and I would like to see 20-year maximum copyright term supplemented by an additional provision that computer programmes no longer supported by the developers fall automatically out of copyright.

An additional quirk of copyright is that many works are in copyright, although the books concerned are no longer in print. This bizarre and irrational circumstance means that those works are no longer available, despite the fact that the publisher had judged that there is no money to be made in republishing those works. If the publisher of George Orwell’s 1984 decided to stop publishing the work, it would be unavailable until 2020—70 years after George Orwell’s death—despite the fact that this is an important work in English culture, and that the publisher’s decision to stop publication had the effect of deleting a work from the canon of English literature. Publishers, writers and artists who had allowed works to fall out of circulation for more than 5 years should be deemed to have surrendered copyright to them. In the era of micropublishing and electronic publishing, it is simple for an author to maintain his works in circulation for the 20-year term I am advocating.

Crown copyright is another interesting area of law. The British Crown apparently retains copyright over the Authorised Version (King James Version) of the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, Acts of Parliament and other works. Amazingly, the Crown copyright over the Authorised Version of the Bible, produced in 1611, is perpetual, although this is not respected by Anglicans abroad, and so the full text of that version of the Bible is available online. Perpetual Crown copyright of anything seems a nonsense, and even more so for a work produced in 1611 that is a core part of English culture. It seems logical to make clear by Act of Parliament that the Queen’s Coronation Oath implies a duty to defend the Authorised Version and The Book of Common Prayer, but that that is not any form of copyright. Consequently, the claim by Cambridge University Press that it has sole right to reproduce the Authorised Version in the UK after taking over Eyre and Spottiswoode, the descendant of the original office of the Queen’s Printer, in 1990 ought to be rejected. Acts of Parliament are by their nature to be widely available in order that the provisions of statutes enacted become widely known. Once again, the claim that there is “copyright” in an Act of Parliament is a nonsense. Acts of Parliament are available on a government website—yet Her Majesty’s Stationery Office has stated that it does not accept material on such websites to be freely reproducible.

I would like it to be made clear legally that no Crown copyright subsists in anything produced using public funds. While few people would be seeking to reproduce Acts of Parliament, a more interesting question arises regarding BBC output. The BBC is a quango, paid for from public funds (as the TV licence is just a hypothecated tax). Yet the corporation runs a profitable commercial operation based on the “copyright” in its programming. Some BBC programmes are available online via the iPlayer service, but many are not, with a notice claiming that copyright laws prevent redistribution of some programmes via iPlayer. As far as I am concerned, no copyright subsists in any of the BBC’s output. I would like all sporting events televised by the BBC to become freely available too.

Copyright on the Internet is an interesting question. While I would not like someone to assemble my articles into a book and make money from them, the nature of electronic publishing is that it is easy for the texts to be copied and distributed. Online copying and redistribution of something that primarily exists online (thus excluding MP3 files of audio recordings that have a prior existence as physical CDs, which ought to be covered by 20-year copyright), where not for commercial gain, should be deemed by law to be the logical consequence of one’s decision to publish anything online. The forwarding of an email is also the logical consequence of one’s decision to send an email to someone, and should not breach any copyright terms.

Furthermore, the creative use of “copyright” to cover personal letters is absurd. We were told that when Princess Diana’s letters to Captain James Hewitt were about to be published that Captain Hewitt owned the paper and ink the letters were written on, but Princess Diana’s estate owned the text and the copyright thereto. This is a nonsense. The owner of the letter owns the copyright to the text in the letter—and one should be careful not to send risqué letters to indiscrete people. I see no reason why Captain Hewitt should not make money from the publication of Princess Diana’s letters. A private letter is different from a published work, in that the text is privately owned and copyright should exist as long as the owner keeps the letter private—it is, after all, difficult to copy a letter the owner will not make available—whereas most copyright law refers to copyright over previously published material.

Finally, our economy needs to be based on real production (of industrial and cultural works) and not just on revenue collection from old works. We need innovation, sales and profits, not just the purely parasitical function of copyright revenue. The older advanced economies are ill-advised to depend on their technological lead and rest on their laurels by creaming off the profits from the adoption of their “intellectual property” in the developing world. If we do not produce anything of value now we will be overtaken. A revision, and scaling back, of copyright laws would be opposed internationally, where there are international agreements in place on the issue, but we need to assert the primacy of our own laws and establish the UK as a global centre for new, creative innovation once again.

16 responses to “REINING IN COPYRIGHT

  1. The more restrictive copyright laws become, the more people will resort to scanners, photocopiers and usb sound recorders. This is a natural consequence of Man’s innate curiosity about what his fellows do, think and write. A 14-year or a 20-year provision however seems eminently reasonable, to allow creators to make some money.

  2. This all seems reasonable enough.

    The creators of intellectual property are entitled to profit from the fruits of their labour, however, those intellectual property rights need to be upheld in a manner that doesn’t stifle all creatitivity and isn’t twisted in the favour of large corporations who are lobbying for extending the copyright period to ridiculous lengths.

    Once again it comes down to large politically connected companies corrupting the free market.

  3. I think the 1911 CA provision of 50 years from author’s death would be enough for creative artists like You Kno Who.

  4. I’ll just make my usual point. We are libertarians. We know that to achieve a market in goods and services, property rights are the essential framework. We know that which communists do not understand, which is that the common weal is a land not of plenty but of shortage and misallocation of production. We believe in the market, do we not?

    Nobody is required to copyright their work. The IP communists are free to produce whatever they wish to, and hand it immediately into the public domain. If such a system is superior, we can be sure that it will rapidly trounce the selfish copyrightists. But strangely, those people rarely seem to do that. They do not write great novels. They write articles demanding free access to other peoples’ great novels, such as The Churchill Memorandum by Sean Gabb, available at all good booksellers and online. And when they do produce something, for some strange reason they encumber it with a Creative Commons, or a GPL, even though they are entirely free to just give it away.

    The era of copyright has been the era of an unprecedented supply of art of all kinds to the masses. Gone are the days when music and art were locked away in palaces, and the only place the common man could experience them was in church. Millions of people have produced unparalleled quantities of art, and they did so because they could earn a living doing so, because they had property rights. Many young people have lifted themselves out of reduced circumstances with music, and the incentive was the knowledge that, should their music be popular, a luxurious lifestyle would be the reward. George Michael complained that he was contractually a slave, but if so he was a slave living a life orders of magnitude more comfortable than most.

    The simplest thing would be to dispense with the nonsense of time limited rights. No other property rights are time limited. If a copyright is worth defending to someone, let it remain. Other works will lapse out of copyright as they become insufficiently valuable to be worth defending. I would rather a world full of the great novels, great music, great art, that have been produced under the copyright system, and to pay for them, at the expense of losing the tawdry “mash-ups” beloved of the IP Communists, which serve only to demonstrate their real motivation; their own lack of any genuine creative talent, and their envy of those who have it and are capable of producing something that others accord a market value greater than zero.

  5. It is also worth mentioning the difference between a copyright and a patent. Copyrights are not in fact “intellectual property” at all. A patent is a property right to an idea- a purely intellectual matter. A copyright covers the realisation of an idea. These are different things.

    Sean doesn’t have the copyright on the idea of “a novel about Churchill”. He holds the copyright on the specific novel he wrote about Churchill. Cliff Richard does not have the copyright on the idea for a song about “moving It”, but on the actual song written about moving it. I do not hold the copyright on the idea for a comic about a girl with green hair and big woo-woos, but on the actual comics I have written and drawn.

    So although copyrights and patents get jammed together into “IP” they are quite different things. There is a good argument that we do not need property rights on ideas- as patents are. That is different to property rights on specific products, such as books, songs, movies, and so on.

  6. Sorry to go on, but reading the thread back, I really do want to reiterate the important point that nothing is stopping a copyright-free world existing right now. I have been over the past couple of days debating with Mark Wadsworth, the Georgist, about land. The Georgist argument is that land is a monopoly, because one cannot manufacture any more of it, and so it can all be owned and others denied even a place to stand. THis is not, in itself, a bad argument, even though I do not think it alters the fact that one must have some kind of market system.

    But the point about copyright is that it is precisely the opposite situation. It is impossible for anyone to create such an artistic monopoly. Anyone can produce more art. Anyone is free to write novels, make music, produce movies, and paint paintings. As such, no such Georgist monopoly can possibly exist. So really the answer to this really is; if you don’t like copyright, just don’t use it. Flood the market with free novels, pictures, music and movies. Leave those clinging to copyright to whither away on the vine. You don’t need to change the law. You don’t need access to the aged recordings of Mr Cliff Richard. Just create some music of your own, and let it go free. Copyrighted works will be an ever smaller, reducing proportion of the total art available; in the end, their market will vanish.

    So we should ask why this isn’t happening already. The tools are available, the distribution channels are available, the marketing tools are available. All for free, or at absolutely minimal cost. Is it not time for the anti-copyrightists to lead by example?

  7. I think, Ian B, any thread you post in immediately becomes extremely boring, with huge screeds of irrelevant text. There are things that you need access to that are copyrighted. My hobby is learning Cork Irish, of which there were a limited number of writers, all dead. It is a historic dialect, in that there are only a handful of speakers of the dialect today, all over 70, and all of whom speak a variety of Irish influenced by the made-up Standard Irish promoted by the government.

    To learn the Cork Irish–and I am trying to compile a dictionary of Cork Irish on my website, using the genders and genitives etc of the Cork writers, and not of the Standard Irish–you need to go to the 100+ books written in the dialect. You can be prevented from photocopying books in a public library – many of them can’t be taken out due to the fact there are so few copies – if the writer died after 1941. Eg a writer who died in 1945 and whose works were written in the 1930s – those works are in copyright.

    Computer programmes – I can see many reasons why people would want access to non-supported programmes, including versions of Microsoft software. Copyright is not an unqualified property right at all.

  8. I don’t know what you’ve got against me dj, really I don’t, other than that thing about my not wanting to live in an imaginary version of the 1950s. Well whatever, moving on–

    There are things that you need access to that are copyrighted.

    “Need”? Let’s see.

    My hobby is learning Cork Irish,

    Oh, right. So really this need of yours is just something you want to do. Okay. My hobby is joyriding, and I just need to borrow your car for the evening. Okay?

  9. djwebb2010, if you ‘need’ access to those books for your hobby then pay up and stop whinging.

    I don’t expect to be able to get what I need for my hobbys for free, if I am benefiting from someone elses work then I pay, as does everyone else.

  10. Why are there so many people of desperately low IQ on this site?


    It is not a question of paying up. Paying up where for what? The books are not in print.

    Let me say again: the books are not in print.

    Again: the books are not in print.

    Why is it that nearly everyone on this site is incapable of reading a post and absorbing the information and responding accordingly?

    You colossal moron – it not a question of paying anything. The books are not available.

    Honestly, why are the people on this site so inferior?

    Benefiting from someone’s works without paying? The PEOPLE WHO WROTE THE BOOKS ARE DEAD – and copyright length has been extended by statute since their deaths. Do I have to repeat that over and over and over again for low-IQ people on this site?

    There should be an IQ test before people are allowed to comment on a blog site.

    There is no common law copyright. The thing is just a take-on invented by statute and repeatedly extended, and extended way beyond the life of the person. The authors in question – their grandchildren are dead. In some cases their great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are dead.

    But their works are part of the cultural heritage of Ireland. And to learn and appreciate that culture requires reading their books.

    There is nothing in libertarianism that requires a perpetual copyright to be created by Act of Parliament – show me the reference to J S Mill on the subject. Next thing you will tell me that dead people have rights and freedoms extending generations beyond their death.

    I specifically made the point in my article that beyond a certain point a cultural work becomes part of the heritage of a society and that it is unreasonable for it to be closed off. Now someone might disagree and advance argumentation to that end – but you have all ignored that part of my argument and proceeded as if you hadn’t even read it. I blame the education system: people don’t know what a cogent argument is nowadays. Abuse, non sequiturs, ad hominem arguments – are all par for the course nowadays. BUT IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A COGENT RIPOSTE, YOU NEED TO DISSECT THE ORIGINAL ARGUMENT, NOT IGNORE IT.

    I’m actually losing interest in British society due to its stultification, a process exhibited in spades here.

  11. djwebb2010, thank you for demonstating so publically your deep idiocy.

    The fact that the books are out of print is irrelevant. If you want to make copies you just pay the royalties due. In addition, provision is made for copying sections for academic purposes.

    Too complicated for you to understand?

    P.S I just love it when you end you rant with a protest against ‘Abuse, non sequiturs, ad hominem arguments’. As for losing interest in British society, in that case please do us all a favour by returning to Ireland.

  12. Doing my best to ignore the usual towering arrogance and rudeness of DJ Webb, that familiar “I am so certain of my opinions that anyone who disagrees is by definition an idiot”, and doing my best to ignore that a man who berates others’ poor discussions skills seems to think that any statement is proved beyond doubt once he has stated it, however lacking in supportive reasoning it is, one is left with the following question.

    DJ Webb is using an example of a particular personal pet project. Since the current law is frustrating him in this project, he presumes de facto that the law should be changed to suit his needs. But since this project seems to be, so he claims, some kind of scholarly investigation, one wonders why he has not simply contacted the current copyright holders in order to negotiate some arrangement. Since the works appear to be out of print, and hard to find, there appears to be little market for them. They are not making any money for the current copyright holders. I wonder if DJ has researched who those copyright holders are, and tried phoning them up. Perhaps they would be quite willing to allow these nigh-forgotten works to be released in a scholarly fashion on the web, as a kind of Cork Irish Project Guttenberg.

    Have you actually tried solving this problem, DJ?

  13. DJ – I advise you to go to the library with a digital camera. My experience is that you can take books into a quiet place and snap away to your heart’s content. The resulting pictures are often just as good as actual photocopies.

  14. Yes, Sean, thank you for that, but that doesn’t address the issue of copyright. People can say, “if there’s copyright, pay money”, but that is a non sequitur to my argument that copyright is being extended beyond any reasonable concept of a genuine property right.

  15. ‘that is a non sequitur to my argument that copyright is being extended beyond any reasonable concept of a genuine property right.’

    You’re arguing against a stance that no one here has taken.

    If you actually bothered to read the post and comments before charging like a demented wildebeest you’d see that the post and all the commenters agree that copyright shouldn’t be extended for excessive lengths. Instead you launch into a bizare and ridiculous whine about how the local library won’t let you use a photocopier.

    Time to take your pills perhaps?

  16. actual an artist can financialy gain while alive as they can sell the post the future rights to a third party as bowie did