Taxing culture

Happy New Year to all.

January 1 is traditionally Public Domain Day, in addition to being a day for parades,  bowl games and hangovers.  That is because most copyright laws stipulate that all copyrights the term of which would expire throughout a particular year actually expire on Dec. 31.  Thus, on January 1, lots of works should enter the public domain.  In Europe, January 1, 2010 sees free public access to the poetry of William Butler Yeats and the works of Sigmund Freud.  But here in the U.S., the gerrymandering of our law over the past decades has resulting in almost no new works in our public domain.

There is a great web page on Public Domain Day 2010 here, from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke’s Law School.

I am particularly struck by the quote on the CSPD page that reminds us that we are the first generation of Americans to deny ourselves access to our own culture.  Almost nothing created in our lifetime will be available to support new creation and innovation by us.  If we are not vigilant, these works will be denied to our children and grandchildren as well.  Nothing except some unpublished works will enter the US public domain through expiration of the copyright term until 2019, and possibly later than that, if the term is extended retroactively again.

These reflections demonstrate very clearly that copyright protection really is, as Lord Macauley said many years ago, a tax on the public.  We continue to pay higher prices for works by Yeats, Freud and thousands of others because copyright prevents free market forces from operating.  We must seek permission, often from descendants who do not know nor care about the control they hold, to make new works based on old.  All these costs are imposed on us by the government, which grants the copyright monopoly ostensibly for the benefit of authors.  But there is no sign that the descendants of Freud or Yeats are benefiting from this absurdly long protection in the US.  Only intermediaries continue to make money, because they do not have to compete in a free market but can charge the public monopoly prices.

Perhaps when the next proposal to extend copyright’s term comes before Congress, we can be intentional about labeling it what it really is — a tax that benefits private interests at the expense of the public.  If its impact was clearly understood, it would be much harder for Legislators to vote for the copyright tax.