Hot Topic. Hot Debate.

Copyright is a hot topic today with loud and passionate voices on both sides of the debate.  On one hand, digital technology and the Internet have fundamentally changed how we use, trade, and think about content or so-called “products of the mind.”  Young artists are part of  the everything – especially music — on the Internet should be free generation.  At the same time, copyright lasts a very long time under current law:  70 years plus life of the author which means that work created today by a young artist could be covered by copyright protection until 2150 (the artist or designer creates the work at age 20 and lives to be 100.)  Art evolves best when artists borrow from each other, yet artists, writers, designers can’t use, appropriate, recast or draw from content created years ago without permission from the copyright holder, not always given or affordable.

Think about this: Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843. Dickens died in 1870 at the fairly young age of 58.  His novel has been adapted hundreds of times, with the first adaptations appearing in the late 1800s.  Under current copyright terms, many of those adaptations probably would not have been created because no one could have adapted A Christmas Carol until 1950 (70 years after he died) without his heirs’ permission, and if he had lived to be 100, not until 1982.

On the other hand, the framers of our Constitution recognized that for art to progress, artists must benefit financially from their creations, so the Constitution allows Congress to give artists exclusive control over their work for a period of time. Some critics of copyright insist that it isn’t necessary because artists will still create. While it’s true that some artists will create even if they aren’t paid or don’t have as much control over their work, they won’t create as much because they will be too tired earning a living doing something else.  Ideas are easy but execution is hard, and artists and designers know how lucky they are when they create one seminal piece.  Sometimes they labor a lifetime for that one great piece. They and their heirs should be able to benefit financially just as someone does who makes money from real estate or business.
Ownership of copyright is a precious commodity and shouldn’t be taken for granted.   Once artists enter the marketplace, however, they are under siege from publishers, editors, clients, investors, partners, or businesses. They may be told that it’s the usual practice to give up copyright ownership.  Or, more often, that they won’t be hired if they don’t relinquish their copyright.  They will hear that ownership of the copyright is not negotiable.  But everything is negotiable.  Artists and designers should not be so quick to give in to pressure to relinquish their copyrights.
Copyrights are a legacy.  What artists and designers do with them is a choice – their choice– and they have a right to profit from their creations.  Over the course of a long career giving in and giving up copyright ownership can be very costly.