How Out Of Control Copyright Law Is Keeping Millions Of Books & Images Away From Scholars
from the tragedy-of-orphan-works dept
The text of the “Copyright Clause” of the Constitution famously reads:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
If you’re familiar with the history of the clause, you would know that (contrary to what many people believe), the “science” part was for copyright and “useful arts” was intended for patents. And, by “science,” what was really meant was knowledge and learning. That’s why it’s especially distressing when we see reports of copyright law doing the exact opposite, and actively hindering the progress of knowledge and learning.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good article discussing how massive fears about copyright infringement lawsuits over “orphan works” means that various universities are refusing to digitize and make available millions of works that could be quite useful and beneficial to scholars and to wider culture. It’s a massive shame.
If you’re familiar with the debate over “orphan works,” there isn’t much new here, but it is a good summary. It also notes the crux of the problem: the massively shortsighted decision by the US government (at the urging of foreign countries) to switch from an opt-in copyright system with a 28-year renewal period, to an “everything is automatically covered for copyright for ridiculous lengths of time way beyond any single lifetime.” Under the old system, most content was never covered by copyright and went straight into the public domain. Of those works that were covered by copyright, the vast majority of them went into the public domain after 28 years, when the rightsholder chose not to renew. Under the new system… every one of those works, most of which are “forgotten” are covered for copyright well beyond the time when most of us will have ceased breathing.
Of course, rather than realize this massive mistake and seek ways to go back to a more reasonable system, all that’s happened are attempts to patch over the mistake with specific, narrowly focused “orphan works” laws. These are supported by almost everyone — including traditional copyright maximalists, such as the US Copyright Office. But there’s one group who seems to oppose them with insane vigor: photographers. Every time an orphan works bill comes close to getting attention, photographers go nuts, and make all sorts of simply untrue claims about how an orphan works bill is about letting people “steal” their works. But, Congress always backs down, and what we’re left with is millions of works locked up so that they can’t be a part of our culture and can’t be used for academic purposes because of a horrible decision made by the US government, and continued because some photographers can’t take the time to understand the actual issue.