Copyright and Reward

Plagiarism haunts writers at the highest levels: ask Fareed Zakaria or Jonah Lehrer. (Lehrer’s crime, however, doesn’t involve lifting another’s ideas.) There’s a real concern, especially in journalism and academia, that ideas and language – the lifeblood of both disciplines – might be misattributed. As a writer myself, I understand the desire to have one’s work protected from inappropriate distribution or outright theft.

On the other hand, the heart of free discourse is the ability to respond to one another’s ideas. We need to be able to engage with the thoughts of those who came before us, and there are certain forms of expression – satire, parody, and commentary come to mind – that absolutely require some forms of access to the original text. Fair use doctrine allows for some limited excerpting and appropriation (see Jimmy Fallon’s hilarious remix of the Reading Rainbow theme) but often there is some question as to just what is allowable.

This Virginia Postrel article at Bloomberg raises some of the salient points. One example she gives is of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which has been copyrighted for, as of this writing, eighty-nine years. As much as that level of success appeals to me as a writer, the fact is that the only thing standing between a first-grade class recital of that poem and a lengthy lawsuit is Frost’s heirs’ unwillingness to drag a bunch of eight-year-olds into court.

Typically, if a writer can’t leverage the publication of a poem or story into monetary success within the standard renewable copyright period, she or he never will. This level of copyright renewal is not, then, in place for the benefit of the artists themselves – it is for publishers, distributors, and other media companies who prefer exclusive contracts to the far less lucrative reprints of public-domain works. In this way, copyright is not dissimilar to the patent laws applicable to pharmaceutical drugs, which are only exclusive for a short term before transferring to open medical use.

I don’t think that media companies or pharmaceutical companies don’t deserve the right to make money from their contributions to society. But I do worry that a disconnect between incentives for creators to create and incentives for companies to keep a stable of lawyers on retainer for copyright/patent extensions really will push the laws further away from their intent. I also worry that a growing divide between creators and copyright extensions will misallocate rewards for those creations.

Let me be clear: creators will probably create regardless of the immediate rewards. I don’t write for the accolades, and I certainly don’t do it for the monetary incentives. But I do think that the people who build deserve a lion’s share of any rewards for what they’ve built – scientific, artistic, or otherwise.



  1. It’s definitely a broken system. As I said when I wrote about the Faulkner estate’s embarrassing attempt to restrict fair use, the purpose of copyright law should be to encourage creativity, not to enrich the lives of a deceased author’s descendants. I hope there will be improvement.

  2. I agree with your post and I find it disturbing that the most common phrases or building blocks are now being copyrighted. It now has the very opposite effect from its intent to protect work and instead represses it.

    1. And I’m not entirely sure that copyrighting words and short phrases really reward the first people to invent those phrases – it merely rewards the first to popularize it. People used the term “three-peat” before Riles & Co. trademarked it, but it was Riley who got it on the trademark office’s desk first.

  3. Copyrights have been on my mind lately… I would have to say that I agree with your view… Sorry my comment is so simple… I just agree…

  4. I’m often worried about copyright issues. As a real novice blogger, I’m frequently mentioning books, websites, etc. As of now, when I mention a book or internet article, I simply link to it. Still, I wonder if that is enough.

    1. As far as I can tell, it is. Fair use allows for some excerpting, but there was a famous case in which an excerpt from a biography was judged as infringing copyright because it was considered the “most important” part of the book.

      I’m not sure where to find that info now – but I guess my point is that it’s always something of a gray area.

      1. I feel like I have heard about that. Was it in the last four or so years?

        All this being said, I make no money off writing whether or not I use an excerpt from something. I will choose to believe that I am safe from the gray water of the fair use laws.

  5. To clarify, so that no 1st graders feel threatened, performances of literary pieces for non-profit purposes are generally protected. (See #4 here.)

    It’s possible for the copyright holder to object, but it’s a burdensome process, and they have to document reasons that the 1st grade class, church pastor, high school speech team, etc, should not be allowed to recite the piece. Most of the usual objections are laughable in these situations.

    So, no reason to panic, kids! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the direct link. I believe part of the problem is that a lot of those literary works are recorded by parents and uploaded to Youtube, which has been construed as a “transmission to the public” – it’s not a broadcast in the traditional sense, but it is “transmitted”.

      That notwithstanding, your point is well taken.

      1. That’s a good point, though I think #5A at the same link should protect those parents. YouTube is a chimerical thing, though. (Is it “you” or is it “tube”?) And I don’t envy the copyright lawyers who have to sort that out.

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