Free Culture

I would almost be sympathetic to Mark Helprin's argument that copyrights should last forever, and that his great-great grandchildren, rather than the publishers of Barnes & Noble Classics, should profit from Winter's Tale - almost but not quite, both for the reasons Matt proposes and for others - if he were simultaneously arguing for a far more lenient definition of "fair use." This, to my mind, is the real way that copyright and intellectual-property laws stifle creativity - not by preventing five different publishers from bringing out competing editions of the same book, but by preventing other artists from piggybacking on existing works and making something new out of them. (Unless they're willing to confine themselves to parody.) Our language's greatest writer, remember, was a shameless thief, copying themes and plots and characters with abandon to create his plays. Yet if a twenty-first century Shakespeare wanted to take, say, the plot of Star Wars as the jumping-off point for his genius, his Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker would have to sit unpublished on a hard drive for seventy years after George Lucas's death. Copyright law, to my mind, should give an artist control over the work itself, but not the world it summons up: If I want to publish a novel set at Hogwarts or a sequel to Gone With the Wind, J.K. Rowling and the Mitchell estate shouldn't have veto power.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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