In a recent op-ed in the New York Times , “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?” novelist Mark Helprin proposed stretching the already incredibly long period of copyright (the life of the author plus seventy years) to…well….always. Now Google is again facing opposition from publishers for scanning in books in university libraries. In the unlikely event that anyone would honor copyright in another few decades, authors would be still be most foolish to insist on ever-longer times. The current restrictions will work against most living authors’ getting attention for their works, while also not enriching the descendents of more than a tiny handful.
Helprin’s argument is nonsense: that anyone who makes anything should own it forever. In theory, at least, books, recordings, movies and pictures, if digitized could last forever or at least a long time, in fact far longer than actual material things might. If you build a house and leave it to your children, etc., they must keep paying property taxes on it, worry about upkeep, and so on. If you build a business, it will need considerable care and investment to survive, and even then it is very iffy, especially as we move to a new kind of economy.
Of course, there are few books even a century old that very many people would want to read. The best hope for any author to continue to be read is almost certainly that the obstacles to reproducing the work get lower and lower. Helprin’s books have a bit of sex in them; what happens if the inheriting great-grandniece, or whoever, turns out to be very prudish, bored by literature, reclusive or just has no interest in worrying about this obscure great uncle? It would be poetic justice, I suppose, in his case, if his work disappeared from all memory as a result, but except for that, the best hope any author or artist to stay alive is that her work be discovered by someone, not usually a relative, who happens to be falls in love with it enough so that she wants others to read it.
Further of course, if copyright were forever, current publishers would insist on obtaining rights in perpetuity. Suppose a book is slightly anti-war, and that a weapons conglomerate decides to diversify by buying up its publisher. With perpetual copyright, the book is then dead. (Of course, maybe Google will simply buy the rights to all books; it could probably afford to buy up most publishers right now.)
But the real rights people should want to hold onto is the right to be credited with the work, rather than having one’s efforts plagiarized. Attention is the thing, much more durable than money.