The weird world of copyright law

How copyright laws became a tool for powerful corporations

Today’s copyright laws favour corporate interests over creative freedom.

Copyright law originated as a way to protect artists from intellectual property theft, but in today’s context, copyright is too often used as a tool by powerful corporations to supress creativity.

The first codified law on copyright was the Statute of Anne which received Royal Assent in Britain in 1710, granting authors and the publishers who licensed their works sole authority over reproduction and profit over those works for a period of 14 years with an option for renewal if the author was still alive.

This law is important because it gave authors ownership of their work for the first time and vested the power to settle copyright disputes in the courts rather than with private companies. For instance, Shakespeare, who died in 1616, never saw a dime for the publication of his plays. That money went to the private sellers who had bought the rights to print his work.

So, the goal of the statute was to incentivize creativity by protecting an author’s right to profit from their ideas. But it also established a public domain, allowing anyone to adapt famous artworks after the copyright period has expired.

Today, Canada and the US both maintain copyright laws similar to the Statute of Anne. However, due to lobbying by authors and corporate interests, the period of protection for copyrighted material has been extended from the original 14 years to the author’s lifetime plus 50 years in Canada and plus 70 years in the States.

Of course, this has dealt a serious blow to the public domain. Contrary to the original spirit of the Statute of Anne, today’s copyright laws protect the financial interests of the author’s estate for decades after their death while diminishing the availability of stories that regular people can tell or, alternatively, creatively retell. 

Most notably, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle still owns copyright to the last ten Sherlock Holmes stories published after 1923. They claim that Doyle didn’t give Holmes any warmth or humanity until he wrote these works. As a result, the estate takes no issue with adaptations that portray Holmes as cold and uncaring, but raises objections if the character expresses tender emotions.  

Ironically, the Walt Disney Company, which rose to dominate the entertainment industry by adapting old fairy tales in the public domain, played a large role in weakening that domain. Copyright on the character Mickey Mouse was originally set to expire in 1984 until Disney lobbied congress to change the law from 56 years to 75 years, extending the Mouse’s protection until 2003.

After more lobbying from Disney, the law was changed again in 1998, to the current period of the author’s lifetime plus 70 years, begging the question: will the law be extended again next time Mickey is set to expire?

With today’s copyright laws favouring corporations over people, it’s difficult for fans of insanely popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek to create fan films without facing censorship.

Before George Lucas sold his beloved space wizard series to the “white slavers” at Disney, Lucasfilm had been uniquely accepting and even encouraging of fan-produced material. Yet, Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm has complicated the relationship between Star Wars and its most ardent fans.

In December 2018, a super-fan known as Star Wars Theory released a video on YouTube called “VADER EPISODE 1: SHARDS OF THE PAST,” a short film he made with permission under Lucasfilm’s fan-content guidelines.

Disney swung the hammer down on him, placing a copyright strike on his video for using part of “The Imperial March” in the soundtrack. Eventually, Lucasfilm stepped in and convinced the Disney overlords to drop their claim.

Unfortunately, CBS and Paramount—which recently merged back into one company—haven’t been as kind to Star Trek fans. The hotly-anticipated fan film Axanar was meant to tell the story of a famous battle mentioned by Captain Kirk in the original series.

However, after a lawsuit from Paramount, the film will be cut from feature length to 30 minutes. In addition, the creators must make “substantial changes” to the story to differentiate it from the Star Trek brand. It’s unclear what exactly that will entail for the production, but it’s surely a blow to all the fans who donated to it and looked forward to its release.

In my opinion, fan films can sometimes be more authentic or “authorial” than canonical works. For example, CBS’s new show Star Trek: Picard, a follow-up series about the captain from Star Trek: The Next Generation, purposely subverts the spirit of optimism and egalitarianism that Gene Roddenberry envisioned when he created the world of the show. 

This annoyed a lot of fans—myself included—and it’s a good example of why copyright laws shouldn’t be so generous to greedy corporations who view their properties as cash cows and seek to keep their stories out of the hands of people who actually care about them.

It’s sad that copyright laws have strayed so far from their original mission to promote creativity, and have now become a tool for the already rich and powerful to stifle passion and creativity.

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