Monday, May 22, 2006

Conan Doyle, Holmes, and copyright

Learning today from Google's front page that it was Conan Doyle's birthday reminded me to post these few, limited thoughts on copyright.

Mitch Cullin is lucky that he was able to work with a character from long ago, before recent changes to U.S. copyright law extended copyright almost indefinitely. No one could seriously dispute that Holmes is a deeply embedded element of our culture, but it's only the result of good timing that he's not recent enough to be fully protected by copyright law and thus unavailable to someone like Cullin, who is far more interested in what Holmes can bring him as a character than what Holmes can bring him as a property.

Yet, due to what I clearly see as congressional malfeasance (through kowtowing to the intellectual property lobby) other, similar characters will, under current law, more or less never become available for later creators to appropriate. Mickey Mouse, for all his . . . boringness . . . could possibly inspire artists working outside the aegis of Disney. But he won't be available. Odysseus, sure. Holden Caulfield, no. Is there sense in that, once Salinger's dead? The Supreme Court has more or less said that current law, though constitutional, is dumb. The U.S. Constitution provides Congress the power 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.
I'll be very surprised if anyone can mount a credible argument that copyright lasting well beyond the creator's lifetime is a real inducement to the progress of Science and useful Arts.

Though I know arguments can be adduced in favor of heirs sharing in the bounty created by their ancestors, and for creators having control over their properties, I'm far more easily swayed by the argument that we all, having as a society lavished more than a hundred years of attention on Holmes and Watson, have at least as much claim on them as a long-dead Conan Doyle. They have, regardlesss of Conan Doyle's wishes, become a common property; the fact that only the happenstance of copyright law enables us to use them is of no matter. Luke Skywalker should, within my lifetime, be equally available, though there's almost no chance he will be.

That said, this has pushed me to think more seriously about something I've long meant to do. As soon as I can figure out how to manage it within Blogspot—or as soon as I can figure out how to move this blog to a more congenial site—I'll begin producing this site under a Creative Commmons license. The decision is one of principle, not of effect; after all, no one is clamoring to reproduce my posts. But I agree fundamentally with what Lawrence Lessig and his compatriots are pushing with Creative Commonns, so I should join them. Soon I will.

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