Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mickey Mouse law

Interesting piece by the author John Lanchester in The Guardian about Google book search and copyright. He draws attention to the fact that a law which used to be all about protecting the rights of individuals is now largely used to make it easier for big American media companies to protect their profits. (Just go and look at how often Disney have managed to get their copyrights over properties like Mickey Mouse extended and then draw your own conclusions about campaign donations from the entertainment industry.) He ends by suggesting that a distinction be made between copyright control and entitlement to royalties. This was what the recent Cliff Richard-fronted BPI-inspired campaign to extend copyright was all about. They suggested that allowing recordings to fall out of copyright after 50 years would have a terrible effect on the nest-eggs of the musicians who had made them. In truth the only people who would be effected are the record companies who would have to face the prospect that other people would also be able to sell copies of "Livin' Doll". Lanchester recalls working for Penguin when James Joyce's books came out of copyright. Sales of the Penguin edition increased despite the competition from other publishers. He suggests that 50 years after an author's death the copyright should lapse but the obligation to pay royalties should remain. I wonder about this. How long should the descendants of the man who wrote the theme from "Coronation Street" or the children of Julian Lennon continue to benefit from the steady revenue stream that will probably flow from their forebears' work long after we are all under the sod? The planet is already cluttered with an entire generation of superstar offspring who have simply never worked for a living. How much worse is it going to get in the future when the millions of valuable copyrights that were created in the post-war entertainment explosion – Harry Potter, James Bond, the albums of Led Zeppelin, The Simpsons, Postman Pat – are being exploited via technologies we currently can't conceive of to keep a whole new class of the idle rich in the style to which they've grown accustomed?


  1. It was interesting to read that 70% of books are in copyright but out-of-print so presumably are earning nothing for the copyright holders (on the basis that if there is no sale there is no royalty). What does extending copyright on these achieve for anyone? I would be interested to know what the percentage is for music in copyright but not available for sale. Music magazines regularly publish lists of music not available on CD so there must be a market for out-of-print music if only the copyright owner would make it available (and with download stores such as iTunes and eMusic the costs of doing so are decreasing). If the copyright owner wants to extend the period, it would be good if they had to make the book/song etc available for sale. If they don't make it available, then the copyright should lapse after a certain period.

  2. The copyright holders in general aren't interested in the tiny handful of sales they might get by just making something available. What they're all hoping for (usually in vain) is that by releasing something on to the market in the right form at the right time they can make some kind of killing. This is why Disney take cartoons off the market for years.