Copyright or Copywrong?

Imagine a world where every work of art, every piece of music, every idea is owned by some corporation who will allow you to enjoy it in return for a fee.

Imagine a world where the image of the Mona Lisa was owned by a faceless corporation who controlled the right to reproduce it.

This is not science fiction – it has already happened.

The rights to the image of the Mona Lisa is owned by a company named Corbis. Ever heard of them? Most people haven’t… but Corbis is owned by a certain William H Gates III. Yes, that Bill Gates – the richest man in the world.

Like middlemen everywhere, it was only a matter of time before the publishers soon got ideas above their station and became what today is know as the music business – a handful of media conglomerates who have become big and arrogant that they actually succeeded in changing the law so that they, and not the artists, owned the rights to the music forever. They did this by sneaking four crucial words into the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999 – a law that had nothing to with copyright. This amendment was done surreptitiously by a staffer named Mitch Glazer who now, curiously enough, works for the RIAA.

Fortunately the musicians did not sit still – they went to Congress. During the hearings that ensued, the music business maintained that they “never intended to use this law to steal music from musicians”.

The musicians did not believe them – time and time again the music business has proved that they will stop at nothing to protect their bottom line, even if it means “forgetting” to pay artists such as Dolly Parton millions that they were owed and suing customers as young as twelve years old and quietly pocketing the proceeds (the money belongs to them, and not to the musicians).

The protestations of the music business rank right up there alongside “the check’s in the mail” and OJ’s “search for the real killers” (on every golf course in America) as the great lies of our time. Fortunately Congress did not believe them either, and the law was changed to remove the clause retroactively.

The music business does not have a monopoly on changing laws for convenience and profit. The copyright laws in America were recently amended to raise the limit for certain types of work from seventy-five to one hundred years. The main beneficiary of this change was the Walt Disney corporation, whose flagship product – Mickey Mouse – was about to turn 75 and pass into the public domain. Rather than let go of Mickey, they successfully lobbied Congress into changing the rules of the game.

That Disney should be the benefactors of such a change is doubly ironic; they owe much of their wealth and success to characters such as Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, etc… all of which were “out of copyright” and in the Public Domain when Disney picked them up and turned them into moneymaking franchises. It would not surprise me if Disney had a department dedicated to tracking down out-of-copyright stories that they could grab. For Disney to refuse to play by the same rules is tantamount to saying “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine”.

I don’t blame Disney for this – they were acting in their own best interest and that of their shareholders – I blame the bought-and-paid-for legislators who allowed them to effectively buy their own laws. Once again big business has been allowed to dictate legislation and John and Joan Public have been denied a seat at the table. Once again our representatives have proved that when push comes to shove they do not represent us.

Copyright laws were originally written to protect the public domain from private interests – to grant Authors a limited exclusive right to the fruits of their labor before giving it up and letting it pass into the public domain. Now they mean precisely the opposite, and are used, not to benefit authors but to provide guaranteed income streams for Media Conglomerates.

This taking from the well of the public domain cannot go on forever – eventually the cultural well will dry up.

Where will we be then?

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