Conventional knowledge would tell you that copyright is a writer’s best friend. To a certain extent, that’s true. No one wants to see their story with another person’s name slapped on top of it. Plagiarism is a real problem (and surprisingly widespread), and if copyright was limited to stopping it, that would be fine. But copyright has been twisted in a way that hurts artist and the general public. In fact, I’m not sure copyright helps anyone, at least as currently constituted.
The Constitution says that the purpose of copyright is “To promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Ideally, that’s what copyright would do. It would ensure that artists are rewarded for their work while promoting the art itself. In fact, artistic compensation is but a side effect of copyright. Its primary purpose is the flowering of art itself. How far we have gone from that ideal.
Have you ever wondered why there are a hundred different film versions of Dracula or Romeo & Juliet but there’s only one Star Wars? Copyright. Current copyright is roughly the life of the author plus 70 years. Given the way George Lucas handles Star Wars, that means that no one alive is likely to see another version of the trilogy.
Now, maybe you’re saying, “That’s fine, I hate remakes.” And maybe that’s true of the original trilogy. But what about the prequels? You know that you and your friends have sat around and thought about how you would have done those prequels differently. How there would be no Jar-Jar. How the first movie would have been condensed into a ten minute prologue, consisting mainly of the final duel. You will never see that version. Nor will you see a Return of the Jedi with Wookies instead of Ewoks.
But it’s worse than that. You also won’t see the hundreds of movies that could have been made in the Star Wars universe, each with stories George Lucas never could have imagined. Think about all of the writers who’ve worked within the universe created by Lovecraft. None of us could have done so without Lovecraft’s insistence that other writers could borrow and expand his work.
But what if it’s bad, you ask? Funny thing about that. Under current law, I can’t remake Star Wars, but I can make fun of it. So while you’ll never see a remake of Star Wars, you will see Space Balls. Parody is exempted from copyright protection. If you want to make a loving remake of The Matrix, you can’t do it. But you can make fun of it till your heart’s content.
If I were reforming copyright, I would limit the protection to 15 or 20 years. That’s plenty of time to have exclusive rights to the work in its original form. After the period was up, I’d give the original authors a gradually declining rate of return. George Lucas would still make money off of Star Wars remakes, he just wouldn’t be able to exert total control over the product. We’d all be better off, and copyright would do what it is supposed to do—encourage the creation of amazing art.