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Re: (TFT) Who owns ideas?

At 10:06 AM 7/16/98 -0500, you wrote:
>J. McGuire at wtsoft@io.com on 7/15/98 11:41 PM said:
>>IMO, that's excessive. Life *or* fifty years, whichever is longer, might be
>>fair, but half a century after the creator is dead is a bit extreme.
>Spider Robinson (author of a story, "Melancholy Elephants", about the 
>dangers of protecting creative ideas in perpetuity) would likely agree 
>with you. On the other hand, if I were the heirs of (for example) Isaac 
>Asimov, I might take a different view. The whole thing beats me.
>Considering how long people are living in countries where people have 
>time for such things as writing and reading fiction, a 50-year copyright 
>might have an author's early works become public domain about the same 
>time as he reached the peak of his career. Asimov is a great example, 
>again. Should he have lost the right to profit from sales of some of the 
>stories in "I, Robot" about the same time he was publishing his last 
>works? Should Janet Asimov have stopped getting the royalty checks from 
>the Foundation books as soon as the Good Doctor left us? That's a tough 

Read again:

>>IMO, that's excessive. Life *or* fifty years, whichever is longer...
                                ^                    ^
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                 LOOK HERE -----+--------------------'

>On the other hand, if copyright was "life plus 10" instead of "life plus 
>50", it would allow an estate to collect on the inevitable run on a 
>popular author's material right after his death, but release that 
>material within the reasonable lifetime of people who read it soon after 
>publication. That might be better. It might not, too. Should John 
>Lennon's music now be in the public domain? Like I say, it beats me.

IMO, the fact that one had a creative ancestor shouldn't automatically give
one the rights to sit back and live off of the rewards of that ancestor's
work, especially when that means denying the benefit of that work to the
rest of the world. Dr. A (who I still miss very dearly, especially when I
get in an elevator at Lunacon and I don't get pinched) certainly deserved
to reap the rewards of all of his effort, but does his son David, who's
apparently involved in some highly unsavory things, deserve to have control
over Dr. A's legacy, and to be able to use the profits to finance his
ventures in areas that would have probably led Dr. A to shoot him?

Let's take a look at the basis for copyright in the US Constitution. (I'd
appreciate any parallels that could be provided by non-US list members)

Article 1, Section 8, gives Congress the authority: "To promote the
progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to
authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and

Three critical points:

1) The intended purpose: "To promote the progress of science and useful

The authors of the Constitution could easily, had they been so inclined,
written "To protect the moral right of authors to absolute control over
their works...." They didn't. Then that, clearly, was not their intent.
Instead, their focus was elsewhere -- not on the benefits to, or rights of,
the creators, but the benefits to the nation: "To promote the progress of
science and useful arts...." It is clear that the purpose of the patent and
copyright clause is to provide an incentive which will encourage authors to
write and inventors to invent.

2) The intended duration: "...by securing for limited times...."

Let's say that someone writes a short story when she is 21. Given average
lifespans in the US today, it's not unreasonable to expect her to live to
the age of 81. That gives us 60 years of her life since the story was
written, plus 50 more years. *PLUS*, according to one of the less
commonly-known clauses, her heirs can renew that copyright for an
additional 50 years. Is it reasonable to believe that 160 YEARS was the
sort of "limited time" that the authors of the Constitution had in mind?
Consider this: if our hypothetical author was your great-great-grandmother
and that law had been in effect at the time, copyright would likely expire
the year after you do.

(I'm assuming modern longevity and 25-year generations here... not accurate
for the past, but reasonable for the time since the law was enacted... and
a 30-year-old "you") Is it reasonable to consider as a "limited time" a
term that does not expire during the lifetime of the author's

Prior to 1978, when copyrights really were for limited terms, there seems
to have been no dearth of creativity, no shortage of writers. Sturgeon's
Law still applies today.

3) "...to authors and inventors...."

To authors and inventors. Not to the heirs of authors who have been dead
for nearly a century. To authors and inventors. By a strict reading of the
Constitution, copyright should expire immediately upon the author's death.
That strict an application might have some negative effects, such as an
elderly or ill author's work being unsellable to publishers hoping that
he'll kick the bucket in a year or two and they'll have it for free -- but
clearly, 50 or 100 years after the author's death was certainly not what
was intended.

>A number of authors have sued successfully 
>based on movies being created that (according to the authors) were based 
>on *ideas* from their books. Under strict copyright law, *ideas" cannot 
>be copyrighted, but these suits have been upheld. (Harlan Ellison has won 
>a couple...)

The US justice system does not determine who is legally, morally, or
honorably correct. It determines who has the most money and the best
lawyers. (couldn't we just compare bank balances and have the lawyers
arm-wrestle, and save all that time and money?)

>And look at the WotC patent on collectible card games for an example of 
>how BROAD legal protection can be. True, a patent is specific protection 
>for *ideas*, as opposed to a copyright's protection on *words*, but how 
>broad can an idea be? Arthur C. Clarke was the first to record the basic 
>principles for operation of a geosynchronous communications satellite. If 
>he'd patented it instead of writing a copyrighted story, would we have 
>been paying him for everything from Telstar to cellular phones? 

No, because patents *do* run out after a reasonable time. 8-)

Anyway, if someone had the money to challenge WotC, that patent would be
thrown on the same junk heap that the Compton's multimedia patent landed
on. Difference is, the only company inside the RPG industry with money is
*WotC*, and nobody outside the RPG industry gives a flying whistle, if they
even know about it at all.

>It's a real problem, and I don't pretend to be smart enough to solve it. 
>But I'd sure like to have some real clue to how it *can* be solved, 
>because it profoundly affects all of us who are original creators of 
>anything, every day of our creative lives.

No kidding.

Y'know, there is a way around this, at least for the honorable individual
author. I think I should put it in my will: "To the Public Domain, for the
perpetual use and enjoyment thereof, I irrevocably grant the rights to all
of my creative works, excepting only those for which I filed copyright in
the ten years prior to my death. The latter shall be given to the Public
Domain in perpetuity on the tenth anniversary of my death."

I cannot force others to act honorably, but *I* can act honorably, and I
choose to do so.

-- Jean

   Wintertree Software


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