Monday, May 21, 2007

Bridging The Intellectual Property Divide

Mark Helprin’s Op Ed piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times, A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?, raises issues of intellectual property and inheritance rights that strike close to home. Like real estate or other tangible properties, Helprin claims that copyrighted works are real and as part of the estate of the author, should be passable from generation to generation.

Helprin claims that the writers of the US Constitution gave us the ability to stretch royalty payments off into some hypothetical event horizon with the phrase “for limited times.” Currently, a copyrighted work can be kept out of the public domain for 70 years. With our increasing life spans, that just isn’t enough. For example, at 56 I am at the exact midpoint of my life. If my father had written a cash-generating work when I was in my 20’s, by the time I reach 90 I would have to find gainful employment all over again.

But Helprin isn’t just concerned with his own solvency during his twilight years; he is thinking about his generations yet unborn. Helprin writes:

“Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren.”

I don’t currently own any intellectual property, but would like to acquire some. However, if Helprin could also arrange to make all perpetual copyrights retroactive, I might have some real claims. Family oral tradition informs me that language was invented by a distant ancestor. For the sake of possible future legal filings, let’s call him Blob Bechman:

Blob: Eureka! I’ve just created and copyrighted language!
Mog: What?
Blob: I’m sorry. You can’t say that without paying me a royalty.
Mog: But…
Blob: No. You can’t say that either.
Mog: Why?
Blob: Nope. Not that either.

Several eons later, again, according to family tradition, a direct ancestor presented the Ten Commandments to the Israelites:

Moses: Here are the Lord’s Commandments, copyright 6000 BCE. Any other nation that wishes to follow any of these rules must tithe to me or else live by their own rules.

Other nations: Suits us.

More recently, from my Hellenic family branch:

Group of Bards: Homer, open source is no longer permitted for rhapsodists. You can't go around all of Ithaca using our material. It's copyrighted!
Homer: Ye Gods!

And this just in: The descendents of Socrates are suing the descendents of Plato for copyright infringement.

While I agree with Helprin that most living authors aren’t paid enough, I disagree with his contention that intellectual works are a form of property, like real estate. Perpetuating the distinction between the intellectual property “haves” and “have nots” would inhibit complete public discourse, shackle future artists and favor those who can afford, down to the nth generation, to keep up the royalty payments.

For example, young documentary film makers today have special problems including archival footage in their works because they can’t afford the fees involved. And it is ridiculous that only well funded corporations can afford to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to each other.

I believe that it is a mistake to use the term “property” with regard to creativity. True intellectual "property" is a relationship between freely conversing individuals (who follow all Ten Commandments), at least after the author’s death.

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