Sunday, October 19, 2014

Copyright and IP Ownership

I was on Reddit earlier today in this thread an u/paxillus_involutus brought up copyright law, specifically that copyright laws should be much shorter. The idea is that a company or creator should not be able to hold onto the rights of their intellectual property for decades or even centuries on end.

This comes up a lot in regards to Disney, since they argued that fairy tales should be kept in the public domain and used by all, only to then trademark and lock down many of those same fairy tales. Proponents of putting intellectual property into fair use argue that by letting the public have access to these ideas after the original creator has a chance to profit off them, creators have more tools available to them to create, culture can grow unimpeded and we'll all benefit from a greater amount of ideas and stories over all.

For instance, it would be pretty cool if once George Lucas passed away Star Wars passed into the public domain and could then be used by anyone, instead of being locked down by Disney until the end of time. Or if characters like Superman and Captain America could be used by anyone in whatever projects they want without fear of being sued.

The other point frequently argued is that copyright law was created to help spur creativity and culture by protecting the creators, allowing them to make a living off their creations for a time before it passes into the public domain. This way, everyone wins. The creator gets to make a living off his work, at least for a time, and once the allotted time expires that idea is put of for grabs, letting other people tinker it with it and make even more cool and interesting things.

But I'm not sure I buy it.

Now, I'm obviously at least a little biased here, being a writer after all I want to protect my intellectual property and creations as much as possible. They're pretty near and dear to my heart, but why should I be able to continue to hide them away even after I'm dead. After all I'm not around anymore so why should I care? And even if I passed it on to my decedents should they really have any more say in it than the public? They didn't create it  and how long can one be expected to profit off the idea before everyone should be able to take a crack at it.

I come at this from a different angle. Why does it need to pass into public domain at all? Does it really do that much for creativity and culture? For me, in a weird way, this all comes back to Dune.

The original six Dune books were written by Frank Herbert. They're wonderful and had a huge influence on me as writer and as a person and God Emperor of Dune is probably my favorite book of all time. Now Frank died before completing the seventh and final book of the Saga. Sometime later, his son Brian Herbert in collaboration with Kevin J Anderson wrote a bunch of new books in the Dune universe, having the writes passed on by Frank.

Now the new books aren't bad. The Butlerian Jihad trilogy is fine. They just aren't Dune. They don't have the same feel, the same style. My friends and I like to call them the apocrypha. Now, Brian had the rights passed down to him by his father, thus doing these works under the same system I'm techincally argueing for so maybe Dune isn't the best example, but my point is that the newer Dune books sort of cheapen the brand, or the universe. When I recommend the Dune books to a friend I always specify that I mean the core six and not any of the newer ones. The newer books have transformed the universe into a different thing.

Take Star Wars for example. A lot of people really dislike the prequels. I'm sort of middling on them myself. They were made by George Lucas, the original creator of Star Wars. But imagine if they weren't, imagine instead if they had passed into the public domain and been made by someone else. For many people the prequels cheapened the brand, they diluted the original story. Having anyone able to do that at anytime puts a lot of properties at risk.

The upside is that with ideas in the public domain the idea of canon would no longer exist, every version of the stories would be both equally valid and invalid, judged on its own merits, and that might actually lead to some truly wonderful stories.

But again we come back to this idea of more property in the public domain equals more creativity. And it's with this that I fundamentally disagree. Writers, and I think all creators to some extent, don't create in a vacuum. We take bits and pieces of things from all sort of places and experiences from throughout our entire lives and many times we don't even realize we're doing it. Thus, while Dune might be a rigid set of rules and characters, ideas from Dune show up all over the place. I don't know if Dune was the first to have a giant sandworm but they've since shown up in everything from Beetle Juice to Mass Effect.

Similarly if I want to make a Star Wars movie (and if there is a God hopefully someday I will get my chance) I don't need the license to make a movie with the same themes and concepts. Change out Jedi for wizards and stormtroopers for samurai and off you go.  Look at Superman, how many times and how many ways have we seen that character re-done and re-imagined? True, if the property was put into the public domain we might have gotten the amazing Red Son a lot sooner or more stories like it, but under the current system we also get awesome things like the Plutonian from Irredeemable or Apollo and the Midnighter from the Authority.

My point is that whether an intellectual property goes into public domain or not creators are always going to take ideas and concepts from things and rework them into new ideas and new pieces of art because that's what creators do, whether they own the right to the material or not.

It's a complicated issue with no clear answer. Personally I think a hundred year rule starting from when the thing was originally created/released might be interesting.