I was originally going to write about video games, but there will always be time for that. Plus, after watching Sita Sings the Blues, I got to thinking about copyright issues, and how little I know about them (this link helped).
For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, there’s a reason for that: some of the copyrights to the songs used in the movie are held by music studios and (in one case) by the Songwriters Guild of America, even though the recordings of these songs, by Annette Hanshaw, are in the public domain. For this reason, the creator of this movie, Nina Paley, decided to distribute the movie online (here’s an interview in which she explains her decision). To drive home the point even more about how dumb copyright law has become in this country, Annette Hanshaw, and several (if not all) of the songwriters, are dead. So, who is really benefiting from this law?
Depends on whom you ask. The Copyright Term Extension Act entry in Wikipedia includes arguments for and against this extension of copyright. Personally, I find the extension of corporate copyrights to be excessive. In fact, I don’t know if corporate copyrights should exist at all. Corporations can make money off of publishing or distribution rights independent of copyright, and to recognize them as “creators” is dishonest, at best. They may have employed the creators, but they did not create the work itself.
Contrast this line of thinking with guidelines regarding most magazine submissions. If a magazine publishes one of my poems, they have first-time publishing rights, which means that they can publish my poem in an issue of the magazine and make money off of that issue irrespective of how much money they pay me, but they must ask for my permission if they wish to publish my poem in a different publication, or in more than one issue. In the meantime, I am free to sell the poem to other magazines. In other words, I remain the owner of the poem, and any subsequent publication in magazines of my work must be okayed by me. Of course, if this action were followed when it came to publishing books, a person could have his or her book published by multiple publishers, or go with a different company for the paperback release (instead of a separate division within the same company). But, the only person to lose out would be the publisher, not the artist.
The same goes for movies. Artists could release their films with multiple studios, or decide to release it under a different studio for each new medium (theater, DVD, TV). But would this be practical for the artist? I doubt it. I imagine that if copyrights disappeared tomorrow, most artists would still choose to distribute their work through only one company, and they could still sign contracts concerning distribution.
Besides the length of copyrights, another problem with copyright law in America concerns derivative works. Supposedly, artists can create derivative works from each other , even under current copyright law (otherwise, shows like SNL couldn’t exist), but by the time they find out what kinds of derivative works they can’t release, it’s too late, as Sita Sings the Blues proves (after all, you’d think that songs sung in the late 1920s would be in the public domain by now, wouldn’t you?). And since that movie shows great respect for the songs in question, why the hell are studios being so greedy for artists who are no longer in a place where money matters? Answer: it costs more to renegotiate the terms of using these songs in a movie than the money that would result from a renegotiation (see Nina’s interview). Even in the case of living artists, I can’t remember any of them going after illegal music downloaders (in court, that is), but I do know that several companies have, due to the conditions imposed on them by copyright law. Interesting to note that some of those same companies were accused of price gouging.
If we were a society that relied on oral tradition, copyright law wouldn’t exist at all, since the works in such societies are owned by everyone, equally. In addition, there would be no “definitive” version of each story and song. Each person who told the story or sang the song would bring something new to it, improving upon the original. Plagiarism would not be a problem because the storyteller or musician would never claim that the work was his or her own, and only would profit from the differences that he or she added to it, since the basic story or song would be well known to that society. In that way, artists could get credit for their creations, though less blatantly than having their names attached to the work.