Letters about letters

Also, the copyright debate rages on.

It is rare that I have ever seen in print such a specious, muddled and arrogant argument as the one Stuart Whitmore made (Feedback, May) to support his demand that “the Federal Government should reduce the duration of copyright protections, perhaps to a mere dozen years.” I’m sure the millions of Americans who own copyrights would be amused to hear Whitmore’s justifications for governmental confiscation of their intellectual-property rights.

He claims that current copyright protections “actually defeat the purpose of creating new works. If you can become comfortably wealthy from one work, and that work is protected for the rest of your life, what incentive do you have to create more?” Only a tiny fraction of all copyrights produce substantial income. But according to Whitmore, U.S. copyright law should be based on the lazy behavior of a handful who hit it big once and then want to retire forever.

On the contrary, virtually all of the commercially successful authors, composers, artists and software developers of our time keep on creating long after they first make it big. Almost none of them say they have now retired because they can count on a continuous income derived from one work to live comfortably for the rest of their days. Some of them even hope that copyright income may provide for their families after their deaths, or finance a foundation to carry on their work. Some of them want to become rich, not comfortable-just like businessmen and entrepreneurs do. And so they keep on creating.

Whitmore also wants to broaden “the scope of fair use.” But why doesn’t he say what he really wants? He really wants to use other people’s intellectual property without paying for it. He is busy dreaming up moral and legal justifications for what is commonly called theft. The answer to Whitmore and his ilk is simple: It is not your property. If you don’t like the conditions of use or the price, then don’t buy it and don’t use it.

Mark Starr, Los Altos, Calif.

In 1910, the United States ignored the Berne Convention and opted for a copyright length of 56 years–28 years, followed by another 28 years if you renewed the copyright. Books that were still in copyright in other countries went into the public domain in the United States. British writers such as Somerset Maugham complained that their works went into the public domain in the United States while they were still alive.

But our isolated position created problems for us, too. Intellectual property had become a major U.S. export. If we wanted to discourage piracy of our software, movies, and popular music, we had to bring our copyright law into better conformity with international standards. The copyright law of 1976 adopted life plus fifty years. In 1989, we finally joined Berne. In 1992, President Bush signed amendments to the copyright law that brought us into almost complete conformity with Berne.

In the meantime, however, the European countries had begun adopting life plus 70 years. In 1998, Congress added the extra 20 years to the American law and aligned us with our biggest trading partners.

Bailey believes a short copyright term would give creators more incentive to create. Speaking as a writer, I find the current law much more stimulating. I currently have stories in five reprint anthologies. You can also buy electronic reprints of my stories from two electronic publishers: Fictionwise (fictionwise.com) and Alexandria Digital Literature (alexlit.com). My reprint income only amounts to a modest trickle but I know it would be much larger if I had created the kind of backlog some of the writers represented on Fictionwise have put together. And the trickle from e-publishing could become much larger if e-publishing thrives and electronic publications are protected by a strong copyright law.

The knowledge that my reprint income will continue as long as I live gives me plenty of incentive to write more stories and increase the flow. I even get some stimulus from the knowledge that my grandchildren may still be cashing reprint checks (or the future equivalent) 70 years after I die.

Tom Purdom

www.philart.net/tompurdom

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