As part of this debate’s development in New Zealand, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a useful framing of the debate. Useful because it makes it much easier for anyone to understand the stakes.
This debate is usually framed as one side (the corporate media industry and some creator groups) arguing that copyright protection should be continually extended to ensure that artists (but mainly corporations) are able to financially benefit from their works for a longer period of time. Meanwhile, the other side (educators, citizen’s rights groups, and many other creator groups) argue that copyright terms are already too long and that the only beneficiaries of these new laws will be the monopoly media conglomerates. After all, in most countries works are protected for 50, 75, or even 90 years AFTER the creator has died.
The question coming out of New Zealand is, why shouldn’t copyright protection be infinite? And, as the copyright industry continues to argue for further extensions, that is essentially their proposal. When the debate is framed as between infinite and limited, the implications become clearer. First, those promoting the extension of copyright are hypocrites who have built their empires on works in the public domain that are freely available to everyone and who now want to close it off to everyone else. Second, that just by looking at the success of these corporations, it becomes obvious how critical works in public domain are to future creation.
For instance one of the biggest proponents of extending copyright is the Walt Disney Company. Obviously, they have vested interests in ensuring that Mickey Mouse never becomes part of the public domain. Since almost everything before Mickey’s birth is in the public domain, and almost everything after is protected by copyright, the battle for Mickey is on the front lines. But, while Mickey Mouse may be front and centre, so much of what Disney created would have never been possible if copyright had been infinite. Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Rapunzel, Aladdin, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast – most of Disney’s Success – has been by retelling stories in the public domain and transforming them into something (kind of) new. If copyright was infinite, Disney would never have been able to do this and would never have attained the current levels of success and power – these creations, as we know them, would never have existed. Disney owes its success to the public domain, and limited copyright terms.
This shows just how important the public domain is to the creation of new, exciting, and engaging works. No piece of art is completely original. Every creator and every work is inspired by that which has come before. The idea that copyright should be infinite is ridiculous and disastrous, but hidden beneath all the legal jargon, that is exactly what these mega-corporations are proposing.