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What’s your take on the current copyright law?

This is based on the law in the United States.

There’s this persistent, nefarious belief that authors should not be allowed to hold copyright of their work for any decent length of time (the going argument is copyright should only last 20-30 years after publication). I hope, rather than know, that these beliefs are only held by a loud, uneducated minority, but since there’s probably a lot of misunderstanding concerning copyright, I wanted to talk about it.

Let’s first talk about what copyright is:

Copyright is the ownership of one’s words (or other creation). In the United States, copyright lasts for 70 years after the author’s death. [There are other, slightly different, time frames when doing things like work-for-hire, etc.] For the sake of this post and the next, I will be talking about copyright mostly from the perspective of writing.

You gain copyright of your words the moment you write them. Not when you register a copyright, not when you show your words to anyone, not even when a book is published. Your copyright is yours the moment you write those words. They could be on a napkin. Or a piece of fabric. Or even written on a wall. Doesn’t matter. They are yours.

Incidentally, the emails you get don’t belong to you. They belong to their senders/the people who wrote them. So it’s actually against the law to publish those words without the author’s permission. Though, no one listens to that except in extreme cases.

Now, there are some things that can’t be copyrighted. Think slang, common phrases (“That’s Hot!”), and titles. Titles can’t be copyrighted, only the words within your story. Also, if you write incredibly generic and random sentences, your copyright will likely not stand up in court: “A pleasure to have in class.”

Now, when the words are published, they’re finally given a date of copyright (despite the fact that they might have existed for 20 years living on your hard drive.)

As I stated above, in the United States copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. Most people think that’s too long (I disagree), and while not everyone is this extreme, there are those who believe copyright should only last 20-30 years after publication (note: the author would most likely be still alive), with the reasoning of “for the good of shared public knowledge.”

Copyright, by definition, is intellectual property. It is no different than say, a painting you paint or a table you build. Or a house you buy. Or a car. Or anything really that you own that must be made and falls under the definition of “property” in some manner. How would you feel if 30 years from now, someone walked in your front door and said, “Yes, hey, we’re just going to take this table you built so anyone can use it. You know, shared eating space”?

How would you feel if, after 30 years in your house, people forced you to open up your home for anyone and everyone who wanted to live there? In fact, they not only live there, but they can change anything they want without your permission and sell anything they meddle with. How would you enjoy knowing that you couldn’t pass your house on to your children, or to anyone else, after you died?

Just…think about that.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds dreadful to me.

Now that I’ve explained copyright, next week I’ll talk more about it, going into detail about the dangers to authors were copyright to cease to exist only 20-30 years after publication.

~Emmi