Saturday, May 17, 2008
  Orphan copyrights

Lots of shouting lately in the graphics world over a proposed change in copyright law. The change would make it easier to use books, pictures, films, etc that have been abandoned or 'orphaned' by their original owners.

By looking at who's on each side of this dispute, you can spot two completely different modes of thinking about copyright.

Copyrights were originally meant as a compromise between the interests of publishers and the interests of the public at large. By giving publishers a LIMITED exclusive right to a text or picture, the publisher was able to make money while the item was hot, and the public was then able to use the item after the publisher had squeezed out the best value.

This worked quite nicely for two hundred years, until a strange convergence of corporate greed and weird Stalinist politics created the current setup.

The corporate greed can be named in one word: Disney.

The weird Stalinist stuff is harder to pin down ... it's been bubbling under the surface for quite a while, especially in Europe. It starts from the quasi-priestly premise that Artistes are a distinct and special class of hupersons, who have the moral right of perpetual control for everything that comes out of their brain or other bodily orifices. Under this weird notion there's no such thing as purchasing the right to use an object; when you buy an artwork or a book you are only renting a temporary and limited ability to cast your proletarian eyes in the direction of the Holy Relic.

Disney liked this idea, because it helped them to gain total ownership of every name, image, resemblance to an image, resemblance to a name, yea unto the seventh layer of the seventh layer.

Result of this unholy collaboration was "implicit lifetime copyright", which means that anything committed to paper (or recorded in more modern forms) belongs to the Artiste forever, even after the Artiste dies. It's not necessary to register the ownership; everyone is supposed to know from the Artiste's signature that the Artiste has total power.

Quite simply, this is no way to define property.

With important physical property like cars and houses, we have systems to register ownership, and systems to rent, lease, or purchase the ownership. If someone has stolen your car, the police will know what to look for, and will know by referring to the system that it's genuinely yours. When you sell your house, the new owners can be sure their title is clear and absolute. You don't retain the moral right to walk in and remove their furniture if it violates your Artistic Purity Standards.

The new 'orphan copyright' law attempts to re-impose a similarly normal system on copyrights, making registration easier through private agencies. (The government still has a registry for copyrights, but it doesn't work for modern products like JPG images or computer programs. It seems to serve book publishers fairly well.) More importantly, the new law attempts to re-impose the old notion of limited time on the ownership of copyright.

Predictably, the Piss Christ Artistes, who dominate the graphics world, are screeching and cussing as only Stalinists can do. They want to keep their unique priestly privileges intact.

The other side (which I'm obviously on) is more inclined toward 'libertarian' views, more comfortable with the ways of Western Civilization and capitalism. Both sides have considerable representation within the broad Left. Larry Lessig, the main author of the new 'restoration', has been working for the Obama campaign, which may seem a bit surprising.
 


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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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