Sunday, October 4, 2009

Copyright Laws in America

Rama, Hanuman, Sita, rain
A scene from Sita Sings the Blues, by Nina Paley (

I was originally going to write about video games, but there will always be time for that.  Plus, after watching Sita Sings the Blues, I got to thinking about copyright issues, and how little I know about them (this link helped).

For those of you who haven't seen this movie, there's a reason for that: some of the copyrights to the songs used in the movie are held by music studios and (in one case) by the Songwriters Guild of America, even though the recordings of these songs, by Annette Hanshaw, are in the public domain.  For this reason, the creator of this movie, Nina Paley, decided to distribute the movie online (here's an interview in which she explains her decision).  To drive home the point even more about how dumb copyright law has become in this country, Annette Hanshaw, and several (if not all) of the songwriters, are dead.  So, who is really benefiting from this law?

Depends on whom you ask.  The Copyright Term Extension Act entry in Wikipedia includes arguments for and against this extension of copyright.  Personally, I find the extension of corporate copyrights to be excessive.  In fact, I don't know if corporate copyrights should exist at all.  Corporations can make money off of publishing or distribution rights independent of copyright, and to recognize them as "creators" is dishonest, at best.  They may have employed the creators, but they did not create the work itself.

Contrast this line of thinking with guidelines regarding most magazine submissions.  If a magazine publishes one of my poems, they have first-time publishing rights, which means that they can publish my poem in an issue of the magazine and make money off of that issue irrespective of how much money they pay me, but they must ask for my permission if they wish to publish my poem in a different publication, or in more than one issue.  In the meantime, I am free to sell the poem to other magazines.  In other words, I remain the owner of the poem, and any subsequent publication in magazines of my work must be okayed by me.  Of course, if this action were followed when it came to publishing books, a person could have his or her book published by multiple publishers, or go with a different company for the paperback release (instead of a separate division within the same company).  But, the only person to lose out would be the publisher, not the artist.

The same goes for movies.  Artists could release their films with multiple studios, or decide to release it under a different studio for each new medium (theater, DVD, TV).  But would this be practical for the artist?  I doubt it.  I imagine that if copyrights disappeared tomorrow, most artists would still choose to distribute their work through only one company, and they could still sign contracts concerning distribution.

Besides the length of copyrights, another problem with copyright law in America concerns derivative works.  Supposedly, artists can create derivative works from each other , even under current copyright law (otherwise, shows like "SNL" couldn't exist), but by the time they find out what kinds of derivative works they can't release, it's too late, as Sita Sings the Blues proves (after all, you'd think that songs sung in the late 1920s would be in the public domain by now, wouldn't you?).  And since that movie shows great respect for the songs in question, why the hell are studios being so greedy for artists who are no longer in a place where money matters?  Answer: it costs more to renegotiate the terms of using these songs in a movie than the money that would result from a renegotiation (see Nina's interview).  Even in the case of living artists, I can't remember any of them going after illegal music downloaders (in court, that is), but I do know that several companies have, due to the conditions imposed on them by copyright law.  Interesting to note that some of those same companies were accused of price gouging.

If we were a society that relied on oral tradition, copyright law wouldn't exist at all, since the works are owned by everyone, equally.  In addition, there is no "definitive" version of each story and song.  Each person who tells the story or sings the song brings something new to it, improving upon the original.  Plagiarism is not a problem because the storyteller or musician never claims that the work is his or her own, and only profits from the differences that he or she adds to it, since the basic story or song would be well known to that society.  In that way, artists get credit for their creations, though less blatantly than having their names attached to the work.

Even so, having a "definitive" version in art is a fairly recent concept, even in our writing-based society.  Shakespeare wrote for his actors, resulting in different versions of several of his plays (for example, one version of Othello does not include the "Willow Song").  Mozart often reworked older compositions of his when asked, on short notice, to present music at concerts.  Sometimes the orchestrations would reflect the different forces he was given to work with (orchestras were not uniform in their instrumental makeup at that time).  That is why one version of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, is scored for clarinets, while the other version isn't.

As for creating derivative works, Beethoven wasn't the first person to use a chorus in a symphony, just the first person to be remembered for it.  One of the chords in a Liszt composition is close to the fabled "Tristan chord" in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.  And how many times has Shakespeare been quoted or parodied in movies, TV shows, and cartoons?  In fact, if Romeo and Juliet hadn't been in the public domain (not that it would ever have been a problem, since copyrights didn't exist back then), Leonard Bernstein couldn't have written West Side Story.

I propose two things.  One, instead of increasing the shelf life for copyrights, shorten it.  Sixty years, no matter how long the lifespan, should be plenty of time for an artist to reap the benefits of whatever he or she wrote, composed, or painted, as well as satisfy the money-hungry distributors.  Plus, that should increase the amount of art around us.  Artists would feel the need to keep creating as they got older, since royalties for earlier works may not last till the end of their lives.

Two, define the public domain better.  If a recording of a song is in the public domain, the compositions should be in the public domain.  In fact, in addition to copyright info, books, music, and movies should include the date when they will enter the public domain (and no new copyright laws retroactively changing the date to a later time).  That way, there's no question about what can and cannot be used by other artists.  After all, no ideas are original.  What is original is the presentation of those ideas.

In conclusion, it's the law that needs to change, but the creators can force the issue, as well, by refusing to go along with current copyright law concerning their works (such as Nina Paley did--her work is under a Creative Commons License), or lobbying to give up some of their control on ideas that didn't originate with them and should not end with them.  I know that, as a writer, all I want is to get recognized for my work, and to get paid a fair amount of money for it.  And if I weren't paid for my work?  I would still write.  This blog is proof of that.  But I wouldn't write as much.


  1. I also at times worry about this. I recently recieved a comment from a lady in Mumbai asking me a photograph I had put in my side bar was taken by her and she had given no permission for it's use. In the US would you have to do something before incorporating a still like the one of Sita hee above?

  2. If Sita were under normal copyright law, I could not show any photos from the film in my blog without her permission. Luckily for me, Nina Paley put it under a Creative Commons copyright, which means that I have permission to distribute the movie and stills from it, so long as I give her credit as the creator, and provide a link to her website, both of which I have done.

    Since Roger Ebert is a professional film critic, I imagine that he has special permission to use certain stills from movies that he reviews (though I'm not positive about this. If anyone knows the actual rule regarding reviews and copyrighted images from movies, let me know). Since copyright law keeps changing, however, items that should be in the public domain under old copyright law (like Mickey Mouse) are not, making it difficult to know which twentieth century works are in the public domain, and which are still under copyright.

  3. Thank you, Literary Dreamer, this does throw considerable light.

  4. I believe Disney is traditionally blamed for the copyright extensions, actually. Not Walt Disney, because he was dead, but the company. While messed up in a lot of ways, I believe the fear was that Mickey Mouse would start appearing in situations that Disney did not sanction and that could reflect badly on their youth-oriented mascot. So there are two sides to the coin, but situations like Mickey could be handled by exceptions or weaker laws, (such as derivative works can exist, but can't profit off of, or defame the original for XX years), allowing the strong protection of copyright law to extend just 30 years past death (for the family), or like it was originally--just until death.

    Of course the fact that companies are legally treated as "people" in the US kind of throws a monkey wrench into the whole "death of the creator" concept, but that's a different issue.

  5. Indeed. The Copyright Term Extension Act is often called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Sonny Bono's wife, Mary Bono, and the estate of George Gershwin also supported this act.


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