Copyright is badly broken. I guess that is not news. But I am not arguing that the way copyright is implemented might be broken, rather it is the entire concept of copyrighting something that is just wrong.
Some time ago, I did read the short text “I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read and recently I was reminded by it, when listening to a podcast. The text from 1958 is about the idea that today so many people are involved in the production of such a simple item like a pencil, that one could argue that there is no one in the world who could make one by himself. From cutting down the trees, to mixing the paint, to mining the graphite for the lead – in the end maybe millions of people are involved in the making of one. Most of them without being aware of their participation in the making of a pencil.
I do see many parallels to the idea of copyright. Image the last person in line of the production declaring that the pencil is his and his alone. There should never be another pencil beside it, since even the idea of pencil is his.
Sure, the text “I, Pecil” is about market and money, but so is copyright. In some ways I am considered a creator. And lets just forget about the projects for which I used found footage but focus on those works who might be considered truly mine. I have an idea, I take my camera, I do my shots, I process the files and in the end the result might represent my idea. But do I really believe that I am the sole creator of a work? I am not talking about the production process – here I am moving away from the “I, Pencil” text. So I am not talking about the manufacture of the camera or the processing by the lab. Or the company who produced the components of my computer. I am talking about the intellectual part of my creation. I am a creature, but I could not fool myself into believing that the ideas I have come purely form inside of me. No. I am fully aware of the things that influenced me and even though sometimes the details are slightly blurry, quite often I know most of the impulses by the outside world that brought me to the creation of one work or the other. Like the pencil, an idea is just the end result of a cooperation of a huge number of people who have no idea they were cooperating.
But in the end someone claims authorship. “Now the idea is mine. And it is going to be mine until many years after my death.” That, to me, feels wrong, unfortunately I myself am participating in this claim-making business, since I have to try to make ends meet.
Take for instance the estate of Winston Churchill. I am not entirely sure, what the legal situation is right now, but at least their website says, that they license those works they hold the copyright to for commercial use. They state that: “The fee will vary depending on the scale and importance of the publication involved, but a rough guideline is £175 per 1000 words.”. I find that ridiculous. I am not so much taking offense by the fact that maybe the speeches of a publicly elected official have to be paid for. It is more the concept of such a license that offends me. For some time, I am playing with the idea of approaching them to purchase a “the” by Sir Winston Churchill. Just one word. I should be able to afford it, since it should be just 18 pence. That is a bargain. I might even buy “the horse” for 36 pence. Yeah, the whole thing is ridiculous. What does one pay for actually? Words? Churchill definitely did not invent those? Well then it must be ideas. But how many original ideas does a Churchill speech contain? How often can we be sure, that it was actually his idea and he has not been influenced by something he read or someone he spoke to? We could never be certain. And I guess that almost every sentence Churchill spoke in his life, was spoken before.
So it might be that we are not actually paying for words or ideas, but for the right to use a brand name such as Churchill. Copyright is broken and it always will be.