Nominally, copyrights in the United States are for a limited duration. But the corporations that own valuable, decades-old copyrights--think Mickey Mouse and Batman--don't want to see those copyrights expire. So they've gotten good at lobbying congress to retroactively lengthen copyright terms in order to ensure that Mickey and Bruce Wayne will continue to be valuable commodities forever.
This is bad on its own terms, but it also has some really perverse consequences. After all, most decades-old works aren't valuable. And most aren't owned by large ongoing business enterprises. But even though this vast back catalog consists of works with little monetary value, they could still each individually be of interest to some people and collectively they're of enormous use. But right now, if you stumble across something old and forgotten, it's often not clear how you would even go about getting the rights to it. Oftentimes a person may not even know that he or she is the heir to an obscure copyright owned by a great-uncle or some such.
I'm a pretty hard-core IP absolutist, a subject upon which I've had
many . . . er . . . spirited discussions with libertarians. On the
other hand, while I think that copyright infringement should be
vigorously discouraged, I also think that the term of copyrights has
gotten completely out of hand, and moreover, encourages infringement.
The economic rationale for the recent copyright extensions was, in my opinion, utterly moronic--in the absence of multi-century oligarchic family dynasties, I don't see how tacking on a few more years of copyright protection decades after the death of the author could possibly encourage more work. Neither human beings nor coporations work on that time scale.
But even if you bought this piece of self-serving corporate balderdash, there was no rationale at all for making the copyright extension retroactive. No matter how many years of extra profits we tacked on for the Walt Disney Company, we weren't going to entice even one more animated short out of its founder's silent corpse.
Meanwhile, as Matt notes, the copyright extension is putting other old works off limits to generations that could be discovering them through Project Gutenberg.
But it seems to me that what can be given
retroactively can also be taken away, retroactively. How about some
hope and change on copyright law? Shorter the term back to the
author's life plus thirty years--enough to care for needy spouses, but
not for greedy corporations.
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