The UK's triumph of good sense

As reported on Tuesday on Ars Technica, the British government recently decided not to extend copyright protection beyond 50 years. Music industry lobbyists wanted to extend protections to 95 years.

As reported on Tuesday on Ars Technica, the British government recently decided not to extend copyright protection beyond 50 years. Music industry lobbyists wanted to extend protections to 95 years. The committee charged with analyzing UK Intellectual Property laws, however, were actually inclined to REDUCE copyright protections, though bowed to political realities and chose to leave the protection period as it stands:

I could have made a case for reducing it based on the economic arguments," said Gowers. "As it is, we left it in place rather than increasing it to 95 years as some of the music industry wanted and again, I think we steered a happy middle course rather than siding with one or other of the opposite poles of this debate."

The outcome was criticized by the music industry (no big surprise there), but also by individual musicians, such as Roger Daltry, lead singer of "The Who."

"Thousands of musicians have no pensions and rely on royalties to support themselves...These people helped to create one of Britain's most successful industries, poured money into the British economy and enriched people's lives. They are not asking for a handout, just a fair reward for their creative endeavors."

All due respect to Roger Daltry, but I believe 50 years provides a heck of a lot of incentive to create great music, which is the real reason copyright exists at all. The goal is to boost intellectual output by yielding a return on investment for creative people. 50 years is generous, while 95 is reason to stop creating and rest on one's laurels (50 years might even qualify as well, but not as much. At least the originator is likely to directly benefit; at 95 years, it's only descendants and corporations that benefit).

Giving a piece of music or video permanent protection wouldn't serve as quite the barrier to advancement as, say, giving someone a permanent lock on some patented computing algorithm. However, would society benefit if Mozart's descendants still generated revenue from his creations? This takes the incentive principle to illogical extremes, but shows that most people would concede the importance of limiting copyright periods.

It's in the nature of human creativity to enhance what went before. The bronze age was followed by the iron age, and musical structures developed by Mozart inspire modern musicians. Human creativity is a social goal, and copyrights are a means to incentivize humans to create. Make those incentives too long, and human creativity suffers through indefinite tollbooths placed around aspects of our shared culture.

It's worth remembering that, in the United States, copyright periods were initially a mere 14 years. Not that that matters much to UK copyright authorities, but it does show that shorter copyright periods aren't necessarily destructive to human creativity.

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