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.