Most people understand one of the ideas beyond copyright laws, but they do not get the other one. The first idea is to give some protection to the creator or owner of a copyrightable work and to make sure that person has some control over its use and, possibly, value. The second idea is to limit that protection so that eventually the creative work – whatever it is – would go into the public domain. The U.S. Constitution gives to Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8)
For limited times, the Constitution says, not forever.
But over the last four decades, Congress has extended the time an owner can hold a copyright 11 times, so that now if a copyright is held by an individual, it lasts for that individual’s life plus 70 years, and in some cases corporations may hang onto copyrights even longer. In the age of the Internet, that approach to protecting copyrighted works is becoming less and less workable.
Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University, has been arguing against these lengthy copyrights for many years. (He led an unsuccessful challenge to the current copyright law and argued his point, unsuccessfully, before the U.S. Supreme Court.) He wants to bring back more of a balance between the rights of copyright holders and the general that having works in the public domain does. To that end, he and others at Stanford have formed Creative Commons, a web site that allows writers, photographers, illustrations, etc., to post their works and to specify how much copyright protection they would like. For instance, a photographer may post a picture and say that anyone can use it as long as the photographer is credited.
Creative Commons is the subject of an article in the Online Journalism Review by Linda Seebach. The article explains in more detail how this works and the thinking behind it. For publishers and editors of high school and college media, this site could provide material that can be used without fear of conscience or law.
(Posted Jan. 23, 2005)
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