The Tyranny Of Copyright

Last week I pointed to Will Shetterly’sThe People Who Owned the Bible” as an example of what might happen if copyright/intellectual property law continues to favor short term commercial interests over long term public interests. It’s worth noting that the original copyright laws, developed in 1600s Britain, allowed for only a seven year monopoly (that’s what copyright is, after all). US law started by doubling that to 14. The current term is 75 or 95 years, but it doesn’t matter because the music and film industries will lobby congress in a few years to make it 120 or so. The result is that many works that have long since become part of our cultural heritage are closely held, just waiting for somebody to license them.

And that’s the fix the producers of Eyes on the Prize, an award winning and much loved documentary of the struggle for civil rights, are in now. The film fills six VHS tapes (no DVD version has been made) and is full of newsreel and early network television footage, and music of the years 1952 through 1965. With so many parts to license on such a thin budget, the producers were forced to take the shortest term available — five years for many items — even though it made the work a copyright timebomb. Produced in 1987, it was pulled from the airwaves and store shelves as early as 1993, when those licensing terms started to expire and there was too little money for extensions.

The Globe And Mail has an excellent rundown of the whole story:

As Americans commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy today, no television channel will be broadcasting the documentary series Eyes on the Prize. Produced in the 1980s and widely considered the most important encapsulation of the American civil-rights movement on video, the documentary series can no longer be broadcast or sold anywhere.

Part of the problem, sadly, is that the current owners of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. are demanding too much money for license extensions.

David Rothman at TeleRead has been asking this for a while: does the profit of the few outweigh the education of the many?

Worse, as he says in his own story about this:

The Ku Klux Klan ought to award a prize to Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, controller of King-related rights. I respect the memory of Dr. King and believe that the rapacity of certain of his descendants, and their lawyers, would horrify him.

Rothman has identified other areas where copyright restrictions have horrific effects. When good information is unavailable — for whatever reason — it leaves a void that can be filled by those whos interests or motivations may be dishonest, as in this case. The legacy and accomplishments of one generation inform the next, so long as greed and avarice don’t get in the way.