Copyright Forever?


Nate Anderson has an excellent review of Mark Helprin’s recent book-length brief for unlimited and very strong copyright, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto. I just wanted to amplify one point:

Also, a “million geeks in airless basements” would “rewrite Doctor Zhivago to make it more like ‘Dungeons and Dragons.'”

In case you’re not quite getting the point, Helprin doesn’t want the unwashed masses anywhere near these absolutely exquisite (and copyrighted) insults he’s hurling onto the page. Removing the barrier of copyright would suddenly dissolve the individual voice in the acid of community; remixes, mashups, copying, cutting, pasting—where would it end except in the destruction of individual identity within “an indistinguishable and instantly malleable mass”?

Which is, of course, an issue that has already confronted every single work ever to slip out of copyright, yet somehow we still know who wrote Middlemarch and have managed to preserve the text whole and undefiled.

The related issue is that while re-writing Doctor Zhivago to resemble Dungeons & Dragons may sound dumb, the general habit of remixing and repurposing older storylines has positive value. You never hear anyone saying “it’s too bad Shakespeare’s heirs weren’t able to stop them from making West Side Story” or lamenting the lack of legal wrangling around Ulysses‘s relation to The Odyssey:

To me, and I think to most people, it’s a good thing that the authors of West Side Story were able to put their work together without constantly looking over their shoulder at whether or not things were getting too close to Romeo & Juliet or needing to somehow deny that that’s what they were doing. The fact that the work is more-or-less explicitly a retelling of an already classic cultural landmark gives it a kind of additional resonance. Trying harder to make it different in order to stay on the right side of the law would likely have actually made the thing seem more trite and derivative; if you simply rely on lazy clichés you’re not infringing on anyone in particular.

And of course that’s to say nothing of the fact that Shakespeare himself was often re-doing other works that prevailed in his time. The convention is to think of stronger intellectual property law as law that’s favorable to creators. And in some ways it is. But it’s important to note that the main users of copyrighted material are also creators. The output of this blog is copyrighted, but lots of the inputs—from quotations to photos to YouTube clips—are also copyrighted.