Burning the library in slow motion: how copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap of history

Jamie "Public Domain" Boyle sez, "When Ray Bradbury's 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451 was published, it was scheduled to enter the public domain this month -- January 1, 2010. But then we changed the law. And Bradbury's firemen look like pikers compared to the cultural conflagration that ensued. The works may not be physically destroyed -- although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access. Bradbury's firemen at least set fire to their own culture out of deep ideological commitment, vile though it may have been. We have set fire to our cultural record for no reason."

Remember folks, thanks to 11 copyright term extensions in the past 40-some years, more than 98% of all works in copyright are "orphaned" -- still in copyright, but no one knows to whom they belong.

But the legal changes introduced in the years after Fahrenheit 451 did more than just extend terms. Congress eliminated the benign practice of the renewal requirement (which had guaranteed that 85% of works and 93% of books entered the public domain after 28 years because the authors and publishers simply didn't want or need a second copyright term.) And copyright, which had been an opt-in system (you had to comply with some very minor formalities to get a copyright) became an opt out system (you got a copyright automatically when you "fixed" the work in material form, whether you wanted it or not.) Suddenly the entire world of informal and non commercial culture -- from home movies that provide a wonderful lens into the private life of an era, to essays, posters, locally produced teaching materials -- was swept into copyright. And kept there for the life of the author plus 70 years. The effects were culturally catastrophic. Copyright went from covering very little culture, and only covering it for a 28 year period during which it was commercially available, to covering all of culture, regardless of whether it was available -- often for over a century. Unlike Fahrenheit 451, the vast majority of the culture swept into this 20th century black hole was not commercially available and, in most cases, the authors are unknown. The works are locked up -- with no benefit to anyone -- and no one has the key that would unlock them. We have cut ourselves off from our own culture, left it to molder -- and in the case of nitrate film, literally disintegrate -- with no benefit to anyone. The works may not be physically destroyed -- although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access.
Fahrenheit 451... Book burning as done by lawyers (Thanks, Jamie!)

(Image: Burned Book a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike image from Paraflyer's photostream) (Thanks, Jamie!)

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