Editorial: How long should copyright last?

With the start of my blog I have been thinking about copyright as much of the reviews I write come from the 1920s and 1930s.  In a sane world one could reasonably expect that these stories may be in the public domain.  Hell, H.P. Lovecraft wrote his works for going ownership of his creations in the interest of expanding the mythos (though, it is my understanding that he really see his writings worth much anyway).

However in the United States, “The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.” (Source:  copyright.gov).

That seems mostly pretty clear cut.  Lovecraft Died in 1937 so most of his works are now public domain, or are they?  It seems that even Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation has still not quite entered the Public Domain the United States according to the author’s estate.  It seems that Leslie Klinger, the author of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, was issued a noticed to pay a licensing fee to publish his book from the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  While most of the stories are clearly in Public Domain at this point a few of Doyle’s stories were published between 1921 and 1927 keeping them out of public domain until somewhere around  2022.  That is unless the ACD estate has a few more hidden in the rafter or false bottom of a desk which could reset the whole clock again.

Unlike many authors, Klinger refused to pay the fee on the grounds that the subject matter of Sherlock Holmes in public domain and back in February of 2013 sued the ACD estate. It wasn’t until recently, that the estate made a response.  They state that with the character of Holmes entering the public domain he will have ‘multiple personalities’ and this will ‘dismantle the character.  They seek special immunity for character’s with complex psychological composition. I hardy think that is a good reason for a special extension. While I like the character and delight in reading Doyle’s stories I’m not really sure that Sherlock Holmes is really that complex psychologically.  He is more a cypher and a force to keep the story moving that actual person though.  It also appears that the courts are also likly to agree with Klinger and myself.  But should someone have to sue just to prove that something is in public domain?

Conan of Cimmeria created by Robert E. Howard who died tragically in 1936 had many of his stories published after his death.  If the death of the author plus 70 years in the end of copyright then Conan should have gone into public domain back in 2006.  Or because of some of his works being published after his death could be 2056 (1936 +120) for the barbarian makes it into public domain?

All of the above is far too long of time by more than triple of what copyright should be.  I’m not saying that there shouldn’t copyright and creators (and to limited extent holders) of intellectual properties (IP) shouldn’t get compensation for the efforts.  What I am saying is that 14 years with possibility of another 14 year extension should be more than enough time to make whatever money one is going to make of an IP.

“What if the thing I created doesn’t become popular until 15 plus years after I created it and I didn’t bother extending it?” you say as the prospective artist who is going to make it big.  First thing I will tell you is, “If you believe in your IP so strongly and knew eventually is would find a market you could have extended it.” And if you you as this future great artist, author, etc. did in fact extend and say, “what if it becomes famous after 3o years?”  I will retort, “After 30 years you only created this one thing and even then it took 3o years to become popular.”  With fame comes ease of future creations.  You now have an audience.  They will likely purchase other IPs you produce even if they are of poor quality, at least for a little while.  Lastly, I want to say to this future author, “Guess what, the world IS not fair.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Lovecraft died penniless and thinking he was failure.  Howard was never appreciated in his own time. There are many artists in the past that got a raw deal and there will be many in the future to get the same.

I cannot fathom why as a people we what copyright to last so long.  I used to work as a machinist and a welder.  I designed and created many local manufactures during my time.  I never expected anything more than the modest pay I received for my efforts.  I know that much of the time art takes more time for less pay than minimum wage.  I considered myself a competent drawer and cartoonist.  I spent many years learning music and still am terrible.  My writing skills, by my own admission,  is not very good.  I know it is hard to do and even harder to break through.  I think it is up to 28 years of compensation hard.  After that you should give your thoughts to society for future use and be glad if they get used.