Shakespeare and Copyright

Your bizarre argument of the day is Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro invoking Shakespeare in defense of copyright maximalism. You’d think an essay on the subject of copyright and Shakespeare might take note of the fact that there was no copyright law anywhere in the world until England’s 1709 Statute of Anne, almost 100 years after Shakespeare’s death.

Some other things to consider: Shakespeare’s storylines? Largely ripped off from other authors. Merchant of Venice, etc. would all be illegal today. Shakespeare-derived works? West Side Story would be illegal had today’s standards been around in the Bard’s time. Think of the children? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that a kid today can download a copy of “Julius Caesar” for free? Would the world be a better or a worse place if every high school performance of Macbeth required you to pay royalties to Shakespeare’s heirs? The public domain is an excellent thing. The Bard put it to good use in constructing his works, and artists in subsequent centuries have put the public domain status of Shakespeare’s material to good use themselves. But thanks to endless retroactive copyright extensions, nothing new will ever enter the public domain. It’s a problem.