copyright question

 Dear Doc:


I heard that January 16-20, 2017 was “Copyright Week”. Wow! Most of us get one day a year to celebrate. How does it feel to get a whole week?



Putative N. Fringer


Dear Mr. Fringer:

I must say, it feels pretty darn good! Just think…a whole week when millions of people all over the world (well, OK, hundreds, anyway) think deeply about copyright issues and how to make our system of intellectual property rights protection better for everyone (or at least not so good for gigantic multinational media conglomerates.)

There are five issues that drive Copyright Week:

  • The Public Domain;
  • You Bought It, You Own It, You Fix It;
  • Transparency;
  • New Media Creators; and
  • Free Speech Protection.

Each of these is compatible with the Constitutional goal of copyright: to promote the progress of science (as the Doc has said many times, “science” here is meant in the way Mr. Jefferson understood it – knowledge, like the Latin “scienter”, not physics and chemistry, which Tom knew as “natural philosophy”, but the Doc digresses…) As Alexander Hamilton might have explained it to Aaron Burr (if they had only seen the musical…”To get a little bit of science…sir. Sparks a dangerous defiance… sir. That is why we must promote it…sir. So authors never will misquote it…sir!”) The Doc’s definitely not throwin’ away his…SHOT!

Today’s copyright system is broken in some important ways. Because it has poorly defined fair use standards and exclusive rights last so long (thanks to Sonny Bono and the Mickey Mouse Copyright Term Extension Act – 95+ years), a great deal of what we used to think of as our common cultural stock is now locked away in corporate vaults. This impoverishes the Public Domain and makes it hard to remix. Think what would have happened to composers who have written variations on themes of other composers if they got sued every time they wrote one!

A lot of what we think we own after we pay money for it is, in fact, just licensed to us for our use (coffee pods, printer ink cartridges, our cars) and those licenses often say that we are not allowed to change the way the thing operates or fix it when it breaks. Courts have upheld these licenses. Some day, soon, the Doc fears that you will buy a washing machine that only works with detergent of one type, or a car that just runs on one brand of fuel. This can’t be what the Founders intended copyright law to permit.

During copyright week, we are supposed to become informed and empowered to take action to fix our system. The Doc is not hopeful, however. After all, big media companies pay good money to buy members of Congress and they expect their “rights” to be protected from the piracy that they believe we all practice. While the Doc knows that infringement does happen, he continues to believe that we can do better than what we have now, because the current law makes infringers out of ordinary folks as they go about their business. Respect for the law should be a two-way street, in the Doc’s view.

So…if you have a few hours (or even a few minutes) and your iPhone screen is dark right now (what? no Mario?) surf on over to the Copyright Week website and check it out. You might learn a few things, and thereby promote the progress of your own science.

Have a burning intellectual property question that the Doc has not yet answered? Give the attorneys at LW&H a call. They just love discussing IP law and helping their clients with this stuff.  Until next month, keep on promoting progress…

The Doc
— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.