Copyright Laws Need to Update for Society’s Good

Hello Interwebs! Copyright laws are intended to protect the rights of artists and ensure the exclusivity of intellectual property. They made sense at the time they were created but, in 2021, international corporations have bought up almost all valuable copyrights and limited the creative voices which can use them. Copyright still has a place in our society but laws must be updated to shorten the gap between content release and entry into the public domain.  

For those unaware of it: the Public Domain is a beautiful bastion of creative works ranging from the birth of arts and entertainment to the 1920s (From Homer to Fitzgerald). Almost every creative work you can think of which was published within this purview belongs to you, me, and everybody else to do with as we please– be they movies, music, images, etc. Have you ever wondered why there’s been so many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula, or ancient mythology, or the Bible, etc? Because the world owns the characters within these works and gets to do whatever they wish with them… kind of. There’s exceptions.

I don’t want to get too deep into copyright law, but here’s the basics: Copyright laws ensure that artists are not taken advantage of due to plagiarism or blatant rip-offs. Before copyright existed, I’ll bet artists used to be plagiarized all the time. But modern U.S laws ensure copyright protection on a property for the lifetime of an author, plus 70 years, and maybe even longer if the copyright is extended. I don’t deny the merits of this system. Anyone who owns a valuable copyright can make huge profits on it! But the sheer length of time allowed before a copyright expires and enters the Public Domain is stifling to artists everywhere.

Corporations in charge of copyrights seem to be cracking down more and more on “fair use” in media (fair use is essentially your ability to use some copyrighted material without getting in trouble). You’ll get in trouble for doing cover songs on YouTube without the appropriate permissions, posting pictures you didn’t take, writing fan-fictions, etc. You might even face legal trouble for using parts of a copyrighted work in an otherwise original creation!  

Sherlock Holmes is the most adapted character in film and TV history!

A popular example is sampling in music. Many creators use samples of famous songs to create remixes, or even brand new tunes. They didn’t write the original work, nor did they compose it, but they did alter it significantly. Or sometimes they just use a major part of it (Ex. Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” famously uses the chorus of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”). So when does the thing cease to be the thing? If I create new and unique tracks based on other people’s songs, who does the final product truly belong to? There’s a good argument to be made that manipulating a copyrighted work enough constitutes an original piece, but the law is probably not on your side.

Many people will say “who cares? Just write something original and you’ll be fine!” Or “people own those copyrights fair and square so it’s unfair for you to cut into their profit margin.” Those sentiments are technically true but missing the point: creators trying to make new work based on the efforts of others are still trying to do something new and being held back for it– and the creators they’re borrowing from don’t profit as much from copyright as they ought to in the first place.

I’m all for supporting art and artists! As a creative person myself, I ought to want my ideas protected. So if I ever wrote something very successful and I knew I could exclusively profit from that thing for the rest of my life, and that my family could profit for 70 years after I died, that would be fantastic! And that’s how things used to work, but not so much anymore.

If I held my own copyrights and did one thing that was worthwhile, I could earn a lot for my work! Though, generally speaking, I’d be more likely to hold my very own copyrights for a bunch of projects nobody cares about. But if something is really popular in today’s landscape, someone rich will usually buy it up quickly. And that rich person (let’s call them “Disney”) will invest in their valuable property until they become even richer! But, by that point, the original artist is usually long out of the picture (almost ensuring future art from the copyright will lose all integrity). And when those artists sell out, they probably make more money getting rid of their copyrights than they ever made while they had them.

And one huge problem with this system is that conglomerates like Disney buy up the most valuable intellectual properties from the artistic geniuses who created them then milk those ideas in a soulless manner until nobody cares anymore. If that’s the fate of my ideas after I’m dead (or worse– while I’m still alive), you can be certain I’d rather let the world have them instead. At least I can be relatively certain there’d be somebody out there who cared enough to write “fan fiction” with passion for the source material instead of churning out cheap imitations of my stories to turn over a quick buck. All this to say– copyrights which last 70+ years more often serve to benefit big business’ profit margin instead of creators’ wishes and consumers’ interests.

But that’s just me venting my dissatisfaction with the system. Why should things be different? Why does the Public Domain matter so much? And What difference does it make whether corporations make the art or the people do?

I’ll tell you: It’s all about the art, man.  

A great representation which shows Disney owns most of the things you love… Credit: WebFX.

You could argue with me here that the Public Domain does nothing but dilute creativity– that all it does is encourage people to remix the great works of art over and over again. History suggests otherwise. Broad access to great ideas shouldn’t be a problem. Societies have been creating variations on the same stories/ ideas/ imagery forever. And they’ve done this forever because they didn’t get lawsuits every time they’ve tried to use said ideas. In fact– old artists were allowed to blatantly rip off other people so that they could expand on creative concepts.

Can you imagine how stunted western culture would be if some jerk had copyrighted the Bible or Shakespeare? Even if those copyrights had only lasted as long as modern laws allow, it would have created a ripple effect so large that the landscape of modern storytelling and cultural mythology might be completely different. If the Bible had been copyrighted for let’s say 100 years, countless works of art and literature would never have been created, which means future artists wouldn’t have been inspired to create their works, and so on. For all we know, 70+ years of copyright on modern works is stopping the next renaissance.

“So what? If art is good enough to stand the test of time, then it will. And fans can do what they will with it once they’re legally allowed”. I disagree. Worthwhile works of art can die. And I’m willing to bet most of them go out with a whimper. There’s probably a ridiculous amount of fantastic characters and ideas laying dormant because a copyright holder doesn’t bother producing them!

Let’s pick something for an example… How about “The Lone Ranger”? Maybe you’ve heard of it, and maybe you haven’t. But it’s a cool story which nobody cares to make because it isn’t profitable anymore– but that’s besides the point. As a filmmaker who enjoys the source material, I would love to make a movie about TLR and Tonto! I’d pay respects to the source material of course, but I’d do it my way in a fashion that only I could and that no major film corporation probably would.

Who cares if people would buy into it? I’d just like to have the opportunity as an artist to make something I’d enjoy. But because somebody (Universal Pictures, I believe) holds rights to TLR for the time being and chooses to let it gather dust, everyone who enjoys that character– including myself– is out of luck.

And that’s a massive shame to me! The way copyright holders handle certain properties, nobody will EVER care about them again. Going back to The Lone Ranger: most people who remember/ like that character are on the older side already. Once the Baby Boomers pass on, The Lone Ranger will be a historical relic of a character/ franchise. And how many young folks like me would be interested enough to revive that property when it eventually becomes public domain? Few, I’m sure. And how many older filmmakers care enough to make a new one? Once again, I’m sure there’s not many. So that franchise will likely perish almost entirely within my lifetime. How many gems have been lost to history thanks to copyright laws, and how many more do we have to lose? Stories, imagery, music– you name it! 

I can’t make The Lone Ranger, but in Planet of the Beavers 5 I made a character called “The Solo Sheriff”

Here’s some fun movie history for ya: there once was a young filmmaker named George Lucas who sought to develop a movie based around a character called Flash Gordon. This was a film serial story from Lucas’ youth which wasn’t being used by Hollywood. But he wasn’t allowed to have the rights. Choosing to take inspiration from Flash Gordon anyway (among many others things)– Lucas created a tiny movie called Star Wars.

That tidbit sounds as if it undermines my previous argument. I can hear the comments now: “Who would want to see George Lucas make Flash Gordon instead of Star Wars?” That’s not the point. Lucas was a fan of the Flash Gordon Franchise and it would have been nice if he could have shared his take with the world. It probably wouldn’t have been as popular as Star Wars but it might have been epic in its own right! And Flash Gordon is basically a dead franchise now because people like Lucas weren’t allowed to keep it alive.

But this leads us down a theoretical rabbit hole. Some would argue copyright laws exist to enhance creative expression– that the refreshingly original “Star Wars” may never have been made if George Lucas had been allowed to direct his version of Flash Gordon. That’s possible. But I don’t buy it. I’d argue that any artist worth their salt WANTS to create original stories. But originality isn’t always profitable.

Classic intellectual properties are the money makers so, if an artist is privileged enough to adapt them through their own vision, they might as well do so (for their own enjoyment as well as their wallet). But that doesn’t preclude creative risks. It’s plausible that George Lucas would have created Star Wars whether or not he’d directed a Flash Gordon film because he would have wanted to do his own thing. Star Wars might not have released in 1977, or even turned out the exact same way, but Lucas would have done it eventually because he’s a visionary who wouldn’t have been satisfied adapting other people’s work forever. But there’s nothing wrong with him wanting to have a little fun re-imagining a childhood favourite too!

Take me for example: if I could write for Marvel or DC comics, I totally would! I love those characters with a passion. But I also have my own superheroes that I write which have nothing to do with those worlds. Because they’re mine. It’d be ideal if I could do both though. I want to share my vision for the properties I love (without getting sued) and make my own stuff.  

The DID end up making a Flash Gordon movie in the 1980s, and it was super fun!

Another argument I’ve heard in favour of copyright laws as they are (for story franchises in particular): if and when anybody can tell tales with famous characters, the world will be inundated with a gluttony of fan fiction which will dilute the overall story to the point where continuity no longer matters!

Let me counter: most of the junk put out nowadays is basically just corporate fan fiction anyway. The creators for the majority of lucrative intellectual properties died decades ago, and with them any claims to absolute creative legitimacy. Why should a handful of rich people who don’t really care about the stories they make get to do fan-fics but I can’t? Even if a character like Superman was public domain, DC would still have the resources to print books en masse, or make and release movies with budgets I could never reach– not to mention market their version infinitely! And every one of those things can still be bought and paid for. Public domain doesn’t mean developing works for free; it means unlimited creativity with universally available ideas

All this to say, copyright laws should be altered to reflect our modern culture’s use of creative works. Forgive me a tangent on what I think that means… I suggest copyright laws ought to expire no longer than 50 years after a work’s creation. That may seem like a largely arbitrary number (and it’s an admittedly loose idea) but I’ll explain how I arrived at it:

I don’t like the idea that copyright expires a set time after the death of an author. Beyond adding a long time before expiration, I feel like some sick people may take it in their heads to murder creators in order to get their favourite art into the public domain sooner (welcome to my twisted mind… I’m just thinking of worst possible scenarios here). Whether I’m off base with that assumption or not, I don’t like that the arbitrary length of an author’s life is a consideration in copyright, so a fixed number feels better to me.

100 years seems solid but it also leaves more room for works of art to be forgotten and die (as discussed above). 25 years after publication seems fair to the public: most of the artist’s profits will be found within this window, and it lets the public domain get access sooner… BUT I’d prefer the artist to make money on their ideas as long as possible. So, that brings me to about 50 years as a medium. It’s enough time for artists to profit but not SO long a time after original creation that works will die if left dormant.

Think how many billions of dollars the most popular copyrights have made people in the last 50 years! In my humble opinion, that’s more than long enough to maintain exclusive rights to intellectual property.

Lowering the length of time before copyright expirations around the world would be a positive step for global culture! Creators don’t benefit from lifetime copyrights much anymore, so it would keep good ideas in the hands of the people instead of greedy corporations; great works of art die if left untouched; there’s hardly a claim for “legitimate” continuations of original works anyway, so new adaptations do not have to be constrained; and, most importantly, artists around the world would have fewer legally imposed limits to their creative expression. Imagine the possibilities.

How long do YOU think copyrights should last? I want to hear from artists and consumers of art alike! Also, if you have any ideas for future articles, or any general questions, let me know that as well. Be sure to like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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