Stifling creativity: Let’s occupy today’s outmoded corporate copyright laws

Rep. Sonny Bono (post-Cher and before he skied into a tree)

Duke University’s Center for the Study of Public Domain notes that New Year’s Day would have ushered in a wonderful opportunity for creativity if the old copyright laws were still in place. Under the old law, in place until 1978, copyright protected works for 56 years. In 1998, the late Sonny Bono, elected to Congress with lots of Hollywood cash, was instrumental in passing the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act that extended the length of copyright “protection” to 70 years.

Nicknamed the Mickey Mouse law because the Disney Corporation feared that “Steamboat Willie” was about to enter the public domain, Bono’s new law keeps you from using these works as a foundation for new creativity:

  • Movies
  • To Catch a Thief
  • Rebel Without a Cause
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • The Seven Year Itch
  • Night of the Hunter
  • East of Eden
  • Books
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Tolkein’s The Return of the King
  • Music
  • Tutti Frutti
  • Blue Suede Shoes
  • Ain’t That a Shame
  • The Great Pretender

Copyright was originally intended to protect artists, by safeguarding their right to license the use of their intellectual property. The initial term of protection extended 50 years after the artist’s death so that their heirs (think Priscilla and Lisa Marie) would be able to benefit for a while. Not only did the Sonny Bono law extended that term to 70 years for individuals but it extended the term to a whopping 120 years for corporations. All that does, of course, is make the 1% richer at the expense of the 99%.

Lengthening copyright not only defeats the original intent of the law to provide artists a decent living, but it robs today’s artists of opportunities to use old works as a foundation for something new. Shakespeare’s historical plays were based on translations of Plutarch and Ralph Holingshed’s Chronicles. Had Shakespeare not had unfettered access to those source materials, he (or Sir Frances Bacon) might never have written them. (Though I could easily live without Coriolanus.)

Instead of enriching artists, today’s copyright laws all too often clog up the courts with lawsuits filed by so-called copyright trolls. Many of these nefarious companies simply file lawsuit after lawsuit in the hope of pressuring unwitting violators into forking over some cash for what is often an inadvertent use of supposedly protected material.

Detroit’s own Armen Balladian of Bridgeport Records is famous for filing hundreds of copyright lawsuits, most involving claims that others are violating his ownership of music created by Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton. (Clinton, on the other hand, claims that Balladian faked documents to gain control of his work.)

In any event, as this article in Slate attests, Balladian’s relentless litigation against rap artists who used mere seconds of a Clinton riff effectively ended the creative use of sampling in hiphop music. At one point, a jury dinged Notorious B.I.G. $4 million for using a snatch of a tune Balladian claimed to own.

Can you hear THIS SNIPPET OF CLINTON’S MUSIC in N.W.A.’s 100 Miles? (Thanks to Slate for digging those out.)

Sadly, many artists lose control of the rights to their creative works to the corporations. Nike paid $500,000 to use The Beatles’ song Revolution in this 1987 ad. (Half the fee went to Michael Jackson who shared ownership of the Beatles’ catalogue.)

This was the era when Nike was accused of using overseas sweatshops to manufacture its trendy sneakers. Hearing his radical lyrics used to hawk overpriced consumer goods made by exploited workers might well have killed John Lennon had he not already been gunned down in 1980. (Many fans still call his death an assassination, not because Mark David Chapman was anything but a mentally deranged fan, but because Lennon stood against the relentless assaults of corporate consumerist culture.)

If copyright law did a better job of enriching artists, it might be worth keeping it intact. But it has become yet another way for corporations to strip artists of control of their creative works, while enriching trolls who treat our courts like casinos. It’s time to begin rolling back the corporate excrescences of the Bono law and do right by yesterday’s artists and today’s.