Property or License

January 20th, 2003

Doc’s got the right end of the copyright argument stick.

I’m getting tired of the media companies’ rhetoric and extended imagery that their copyrights mean that the works are their property. The copyright is (or at least should be meant to be) a license granted by law that loans the rights of copy (and use) of a work from its perpetual owner, the public domain, to the creator of the work for an initial limited period, in order that the creator may realize some gain from his effort, thus encouraging creators to create. At no time should the copyright holder become the owner of the work itself, just the temporary benefactor of its commercial value.

2 comments to “Property or License”

  1. I have a difficult time believing that this argument would play well with the general public, or even that it’s the best reading of what the copyright language of the Constitution says or implies. But I don’t just have a criticism, I have an alternative to suggest.

    Copyright (and patents and the like) are not about ownership, they are about use. The public domain doesn’t make works, creators do – actual people write, draw, compose, and so on. I don’t see that the limited nature of Constitutional IP protection changes the fact of ownership. I made it, it’s still mine: this is a basic fact of the world. What changes is what I can make others do because it’s mine. Works in the public domain are still someone’s creations, and I know that my own creations feel to me like thigns I own. I am far more resistant to the idea that this sense of ownership is delusional than I am to the idea that I only get to dictate use for a limited period.

    Mickey Mouse will always be Disney’s, in some crucial ways. Walt and his crew made the Mouse; the corporation carries on from there, and as long as Disney continues to make cartoons and other stuff with Mickey in them, there will be a distinctive sense of Disney Mickey for a lot of people. This is not incompatible with the idea that others should now also be able to use Mickey, so that there can be other versions of Mickey along with Little Red Riding Hood and Odysseus.

    I think that trying to tell people they shouldn’t feel a sense of ownership over their creations will never fly as well as trying to tell them that they are welcome to feel that sense but that this won’t be an endless license for them to stop others from working with that stuff – to make their own works, which will be distinctively theirs, too.

  2. I agree a lot with Dave. (“Howard Johnson is right!”) I’m aware of how much I as an author owe to the work of those who’ve come before me and to the civil order that lets me deal with those willing to pay me to write. I can only hope that something I write will end up b eing useful and enjoyable to someone else that way.

    I grew up in a larger family than many of my peers, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea that if each of us gives up a little bit of what we want, it’s easier for all of us to get most of what we want. But I’m not at all sure how to put that insight for the general public.