The origin of copyright law takes us back to the 1710 and Queen Anne, the Monarch who had just overseen the Unification of England and Scotland into then, brand-new Great Britain.
Also on her busy schedule was the Statute of Anne: the very first copyright law. It gave authors control over who could make copies of their books or build on their work a limited time.
Later a group of rebellious colonists, thought the Statue of Anne was a good idea, and so copy/pasted it into their own constitution giving congress the power:
"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors… the exclusive right to their respective Writings".
Basically, copyright is a contract between authors and society: if you promise to make more stuff, we promise not to copy it or build on it for 28 years.
Here's an example from the modern day: let's say you're trying to be a director and you're looking for a project to get started.
Harry Potter is a story you'd love to remake. But since J. K. Rowling published 'The Sorcerer's Stone' in the United States in 1998 it still has copyright protection, so you can't use it.
Instead you need find something from a long time ago, like, for example:
George Lucas released Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977! That's more than 28 years ago, So great! Get filming!
While Star Wars should have lost copyright protection in 2005 it's actually copyrighted until 2072!
That's 95 years after publication, not 28!
So you can't use it unless Lucas lets you.
Why does his copyright last for ages?
Well, as long as there has been copyright there have been authors arguing that it's too short.
And perhaps, they're right. How's a poor guy like George Lucas supposed turn a profit in the mere 28 years between 1977 and 2005?
There was only the first theatrical release of 'A New Hope',
And the theatrical re-released in 1978
and then there was the 1982 VHS and Betamax releases
the 1984 broadcast television release
the 1985 Laser disc release
the 1989 widescreen Laser disc release
the 1990 VHS re-release
the 1992 widescreen VHS release
the 1993 Laserdisc re-release
the 1995 VHS re-re-release
and the 1997 special edition theatrical release
Han shot first, you bastard.
and the 1997 VHS special edition release
and the 2004 DVD release
And now you, dear filmmaker, come along and want make your own version of Star Wars: a New Hope? For shame!
That like stealing food right out of George's Lucas' mouth.
Four times Congress has agreed with authors that the length of copyright is too short to turn a profit and so extended it:
That's a great deal for authors who have already made stuff, but does it really help society get more movies and books?
It's hard to imagine, for example, that Edgar Rice Burroughs started writing 'A Princess of Mars' and 'Tarzan' in 1911 because the copyright laws had just been extended and would not have done so otherwise.
Or that J. K. Rowling, while living on benefits in Scotland, was busy doing the math and wouldn't have written Harry Potter if the copyright protection was just for her whole life and not an additional seven decades thereafter.
Because, exactly who needs incentives after they're dead? Dead is the point at which literally no incentives in the whole universe can motivate you to write one more screenplay. Because you're dead.
If you're the kind of person who is only motivated by plans that unravel after your demise, you're either amazingly awesome or deranged.
But so what? So what if every kindergartner's macaroni artwork is protected by copyright for 175 years?
Why does it matter?
Because the main beneficiaries of copyright after death are not the authors, or society but companies. Companies like… Disney.
Remember all the good old Disney movies?
Yeah, all of them came from works no longer under copyright protection at the time.
The whole of the Disney Empire and all the childhood magic that it produces only exist because there was copyright free work for Walt Disney – you know the guy who actually started the whole company – to rework and update.
But the corporate, Waltless Disney was the big pusher of the 1998 life +70 years copyright extension. It made sure that no one could make more popular versions of their movies in the same way they made a more popular version of Alice in Wonderland.
This near-infinite control subverts the whole purpose of copyright which is to promote the creation of more books and movies, not to give companies the power to stop people making new creative works based on the efforts on their long-dead founders.
New directors and authors need the freedom to take what came before to remake and remix (romeo & juliet, emma). And they should be able to use creative material from their own lifetime to do so, not just be limited to the work of previous generations.
At the turn of the century, George Lucas wrought upon civilization a new word: anticipointment.
The tremendous let-down that was the lazy, bland, and soulless new trilogy.
George Lucas's was completely within his rights to make those movies into the sterile, toy-marketing vehicles they were. He owned Darth Vader and could tell the origin story as he wished – and that's the only version you'll ever get to see.
But, imagine for a moment, if copyright still worked as first intended.
In 2011 the whole of the original Star Wars trilogy – all of its artwork, its characters, its music – would have left copyright protection and been available to aspiring directors and writers to build upon and make their own versions of.
There would be a treasure trove of new Star Wars stories for fans to enjoy.
But as long as the current copyright laws remain as they are, no living person will ever get to tell a Darth Vader story, or a Harry Potter Story, or a Hobbit Story or any other story that matters to them, that the author or, when after their death, their company, disagrees with.
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Image credits: kristiamb, izzyplante, martintaylor, Joi Ito, Gaetan Lee, fast50, allys_scotland, kessiye (2), thcganja, jdhancock, schluesselbein, mateeee, jurvetson, Randy Pertiet, David Goodger, elaws, andresrueda, pasukaru76, Star Wars Blog.