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nocopyright

Spoken like a true derivative hack

Arrgh, here we go again!

An author named Mark Helprin (yeah; I've never heard of him either) has written an essay calling for perpetual copyright. He makes the same tired "property" arguments that we've heard before, the same appeal for the "rights" of authors' families to a never-ending stream of income from no work. And his arguments against a public domain are flat-out hypocritical; he has done his share of using what has come before.

One more time, all together now: INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY DOES NOT EXIST. Once something you created is in someone else's head, you don't own it anymore. You can't. "Public domain" is the natural state of a created work; copyright is just a temporary monopoly on distribution.

For instance: Boil Hamlet down to its essentials. King's brother kills him and usurps the throne. Dead king's son vows (and ultimately gets) revenge. It's a good story; as good now as it was 400 years ago. Just ask Disney. They called their retelling of it The Lion King.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of Disney's catalog would simply not exist if not for the public domain. Nor would films like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You. 99% of art is derivative, and artists need free access to what has come before as a jumping-off point for new works. If you don't have a massive base of existing lore to pull from, you get stale re-hashings of last year's tales that sold well. Go ahead; count the number of terrible sequels to so-so films in a given summer. Hollywood is stagnating simply because they are so concerned with keeping their ideas under lock and key. And if there were no public domain for them to go back to, they would have nothing at all. Keep taking without giving, and soon there will be nothing worth taking.

There is another point that seems to be lost on the advocates of longer copyright. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two entirely different things, and they need to be treated differently. I would say, based on the creative types I have met over the years, that plagiarism is still considered a taboo. No one is trying to pass off an Edgar Allan Poe story as their own, and yet, since Poe is in the public domain, anyone can publish his stories. You just can't put your own name on them.

Which leads me back to The Lion king as an example. Retelling Hamlet with cartoon lions and Elton John songs without so much as a mention of Shakespeare in the credits, to me, smacks of plagiarism, and is a much more grievous sin than someone copying the DVD of The Lion King. No one who copies a DVD, even if they sell it for profit, is attempting to claim it as an original work.

In fact, the faster something gets into the public domain and the more exposure it gets, the less likely plagiarism is to be successful. You could never pass off Mozart or the Mona Lisa as your own, even though as public domain works you are free to use either one as you see fit, because both are so well-known. And people will still pay to hear a live performance of Mozart, and they will still pay admission to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, even though you can find reproductions of them everywhere. They still have "value" even without copyright.

Perhaps Mr. Helprin can't make money as an author without laws to protect him. And perhaps, neither can I. But I'm willing to bet I can, and will release all my works with some form of "copyleft" on them, and I would be thrilled if I one day saw someone take one of my works and "run with it." (Of course, if applicable, I want my cut, but that is not the issue here.) And I can tell you one thing: because of his odious opinions, Mr. Helprin will never make a dime from me. I won't see Disney films anymore, and I won't read his books. You be honest with me, and I'll be generous with you. You be a greedy asshole, and you'll have to find a way to be successful without my support.

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