Copyright and The Common Good

Our IP system is broken. Not as spectacularly broken as John Oliver demonstrates the US system is. Copyright’s equally absurd – just look at Happy Birthday. And in the US, copyright has already been extended twice (1976) (1998) just before Micky Mouse was due to come out of copyright (it’s now due out in 2023…). And in the US the following books have become public domain in the past five years because their copyright expired. Indeed the current system of copyright in the US is so toxic to older books that in 2013 Amazon had more books from the 1880s than the 1980s.

But Britain isn’t the US. So what’s that to do with us? We actually have had books coming out of copyright for the past 20 years. The only thing is that the books that came out of copyright last year also came out of copyright in 1994 and were then taken out of the public domain by 1995 legislation (imposed on us by the EU)*. And our term lengths are the same.

The current copyright system is broken and corporate controlled. It needs a radical overhaul

So if a radical overhaul is needed, what to do about it?

The Green Party believes in evidence based policy, unlike a certain chancellor of a certain blue party who at best bases economic policy a non-peer reviewed academic paper that couldn’t add up a column in excel properly. And the best evidence we’ve found says around 14 year copyright terms are apparently a good baseline figure for optimal (although this may vary on a case by case basis and the research is only theoretical because there is no current empirical evidence) giving almost all creators almost all the returns they are going to get, while allowing other artists the ability to create e.g. accurate dramas set in the 1980s on a low budget. The Green Party supports the arts.

But that doesn’t mean we support long term copyright dominated by corporations. Our policies state:

EC1011 On cultural products (literature, music, film, paintings etc), our general policy is to expand the area of cultural activity, that is ways that culture can be consumed, produced, and shared, reduce the role of the market and encourage smaller and more local cultural enterprise (see CMS200 onwards). Specifically we will:

  1. introduce a Citizen’s Income (see EC730), which will allow many more people to participate in cultural creation;

  2. introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years;

What does this actually mean?

First our policy pages are our long term vision. Many of them are utopian. (A number of them are also silly – I’m one of many people trying to get our nuclear policies changed). In a world where we had a second consecutive term with a Green prime minister and overwhelming majority in parliament we’d hope to get almost all of our policies implemented. That’s … not going to happen soon. Especially not under First Past the Post.

Second, even assuming we do get to the Green utopia I’m talking about, we will introduce point 1 before point 2. A 14 year Copyright is only supposed to happen in a world with a citizen’s income. Under the Green Party, even William McGonagal wouldn’t starve as a full time artist. (And I can safely say that the Citizen’s Income is a much much higher priority for almost all Green Party activists than cutting copyright terms and going head to head with Disney).

What we are fighting the election on is in the Green Party Manifesto (the Mini-manifesto and the Youth Manifesto are easier to read). There was an internal fight before we decided not to include the Citizens’ Income for the 2015 manifesto. And we are fighting on expanding the arts budget. Shredding copyright? Not on the agenda for this manifesto.

The other part of long term Green policy is that it’s democratically made by the membership. Get enough people within the green party to agree with you and your vision at conference and it’s easy to change.

So yes, we do believe in shredding copyright terms as a party. Eventually. When we’ve made it a better world for artists (and everyone else). Right now what we’re fighting on for the arts is a £500 million annual increase in the arts budget.

* The EU is normally a good thing. But not always. The Green Party policy on it is Three Yeses – yes to a referrendum, yes to staying in, yes to major reform. And we should talk more about it

3 thoughts on “Copyright and The Common Good

  1. A 14 year copyright term is nuts for writers who live off the modest and scattered income from their backlist. A book can take anything from 1 – 5 years (or longer) to write. Publishers’ advances are modest. (Not all writers are like Rowling, King and Pratchett, indeed, most of us are hanging on to the mid-list by our fingernails). The citizen’s income might stop us from starving, (I can hardly see it being more than basic subsistence level, can you?) but ideally we don’t want to live our lives doing nothing more than bouncing around on the breadline because our backlist has gone out of copyright. My first book took 16 years to write. I don’t want to lose the (modest) income from it after 14. Get real! If that elusive film deal comes in after 15 years the studio will be laughing all the way to the bank and I will have nothing. A 14 year copyright term does not benefit small independent producers of writing, music or art if after 14 years the big corporations can use our work without paying us for it. Curb corporate copyright by all means, but protect the individuals who create the work that you love. We aren’t in it for the money, but we need to eat (preferably not from a foodbank) and even if we can’t afford foreign holidays, our kids need shoes and the occasional treat.

    • An excellent emotive argument and one I’ve seen in several places. But I have never seen any numbers backing it up at all and plenty of numbers to suggest it is the Kings, the Rowlings, and the Pratchetts of this world that get the money from such things.

      As one of my first links points out, the number of books even in print after 14 years under the current system of copyright is low to the point that in 2013 there were more books in print from the 1890s than the 1990s. Also approximately 25-30% of a publisher’s income comes from their backlist. Yes, your books over 14 years old are on the backlist. But you know what is also there? Your 2 year old books. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Jane Austin. Terry Pratchett. If there’s evidence that a significant number of authors other than the Kings and Rowlings of this world get significant money from their backlist I’m happy to change my position. But I’ve yet to see any.

  2. Hi Francis – what do you think of the original Statute of Anne approach of a 14 year registered term, then reverts to author who can register for another 14 years? I somewhat share Jacey Bedford’s concern that a 14 year term might sometimes be unfairly short for slow-burn authors, but obviously I agree strongly with you that the current system is broken. Similar rights which have not gone through copyright’s inflation tend to have 10-25 year terms, from 10 years’ marketing for UK Unregistered Design to a maximum 25 years for the UK & EU Unregistered Design Right. Patents increased from 14 to 20, 25 for drugs patents in the EU. Exactly where copyright should sit within that range is debatable, but I don’t see any strong arguments for it falling much outside that sort of ballpark (I don’t subscribe to ‘human right to perpetual monopoly’ type arguments).
    – Simon Newman

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