My laptop died this week after many years of faithful service. It is an example of something that was used and loved to death. This post is about the opposite.
On January 1, Steamboat Willie’s copyright protection finally lapsed. The Internet Archive posted a blog post about it.
Three days ago, they followed up that post with another about the implications of the ever-extending terms for copyright protection. In that article, these paragraphs caught my attention:
The time extension of copyright, from 14 to 28 to “75 years or life of the author plus 50 years” to the current “95 years or life of author plus 70 years” has been a rapid expansion that has swallowed many creative works, and, combined with automatic copyright, has effectively ended a long-rich and held system of creations that could reference near-contemporaries in their works beyond the scope of parody or (often disputed fair use). What was a rich environment is now a rather dry landscape.
The ramifications of this have been many, but one of the most striking has been preservation – with works whose corporate or anonymous creators are undetermined, there is very little incentive to invest in their upkeep and maintenance, meaning that many early works tend to disappear in percentages that are heartbreaking for their size: half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever [cite].
That excellent copies of Steamboat Willie still exist are owed mostly to Disney’s own efforts to keep their materials under control and locked down for nearly a century. Steamboat’s fellow members of the Class of 1928 will not, ultimately, be so lucky. Each successive year of items released into the public domain will have a few “stars” to make the news and receive the artistic references that Mickey is getting this month – but hundreds, maybe thousands of works from the same year may never again see the light of day.
This is an astonishing fact. Those who are hell-bent on hoarding cultural production in the name of protecting it are more likely to be the ones who actually kill it. I am in favour of artists being compensated for their work (and I am in favour of artists having a stake in each successive sale of their work, too). When artists own their own works and the rights to those works, it is in their interest to make them available on their terms. When large corporations own the rights, it is in their interest to exercise control, apparently to the point of neglect. That can result in tragedies like what happened in the Universal fire in 2008. (Here’s a free New York Times link to read: scroll down until you see the list of artists whose original recordings are gone forever).
If we want to protect the material culture of a place, it needs to be used, shared, interacted with and made available. Simply holding the rights and not the responsibilities is a form of cultural cruelty, like buying star footballers and sitting them on the bench. My heart skipped a beat when I read about how much has been lost.
Share what you have. The world needs your beauty, ideas and art.