My reply to that BBC reporter

Hi Nicola,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I don’t want to sound like an obsessive or a copyright geek but I think ownership of intellectual property is important in modern cultures and economies and I think the media owners’ efforts to extend protection essentially indefinitely are potentially very damaging to our idea of ‘the public domain’.

There is a large and growing body of criticism of existing copyright law from people and groups identified with the public domain. The Internet, digital media in general, low cost grassroots media and other trends make these issues more important and more visible than ever. I’d be very happy to talk with you about all this. Give me a call if you’d like to.

In the meantime, here are some disconnected thoughts!

* The public domain is important. As a concept, it was essentially invented here in Britain when authors were first offered protection for their works in the 17th C. Copyright law, since then, has balanced the short-term economic interests of creators and the long-term interests of the public domain.

In copyright law a creator is granted a temporary monopoly in their work so that they can recoup the investment they made in creating it. After that it reverts to the public domain. Many people think that the continuous extension of copyright terms erodes the value of the public domain and provides excessive returns on initial investment for creators.

* Whether you like it or not, Cliff’s position *is* the industry’s position. The potential economic benefit to the industry of extending copyright protection to cover essentially the entire history of recorded music is incalculable. By comparison, the benefit to the tiny handful of artists who are a) still alive and b) still selling is irrelevant.

By the way, Sonny Bono’s campaign to extend copyright protection in the US was conducted not on behalf of artists but on behalf of his sponsors in big media. His campaign was more about permitting Disney to keep Winnie-the-Pooh and Mickey Mouse out of the public domain than about happy retirements for singers. You can be sure that when Mickey comes round to his 95th birthday Disney et al will be campaigning for another extension.

* Your question to Cliff about cheap CDs was valid but of secondary importance: copyright expiry returns a work to the public domain, making countless derivative works, remixes (‘mash-ups’ as they are now called) and reworkings possible. The Internet, open source software and the culture of free and accessible media point to the possibilities inherent in the public domain.

* ‘Use it or lose it’ is a real and useful concept but not in the way described. Public domain advocates, including, for instance, Larry Lessig, a law professor and inventor of ‘creative commons’, an alternative to conventional copyright, has proposed a very simple ‘use it or lose it’ rule for copyright owners.

Lessig proposes *reducing* protection to the original 14 years but permitting copyright owners to renew protection indefinitely on expiry on payment of one pound. This is a great idea because it minimises the risk of media ‘orphans’ – works which are protected and thus unusable but not currently available to anyone because they’re out of print or deleted. If a publisher or record company doesn’t want to protect a work someone else can pick it up and make use of it. In Britain, the Royal Society for the Arts is advancing a similar template for copyright reform:

* The public domain is diminished whenever a work of value to someone (a business or an appreciative customer) is ‘walled up’ behind copyright protection and inaccessible. There are literally millions of such works – ‘orphans’ – across all media. Publishers, for instance, hold prisoner hundreds of thousands of books which they’re not interested in publishing but which have automatic protection for many decades. This is damaging not only to individual artists (like your Darts man) but to the economy at large.

Thanks again,
Steve Bowbrick


  1. I think this is really good, but speaking with a PR man’s hat on I can see Nicola having problems with it. Concepts like the public domain are difficult and even the most highbrow medium will shy away. You need an angle that ‘makes it real’. She needs specific examples of lost works, people stories, that sort of thing.

  2. I agree. While I was writing that lot it suddenly occurred to me: “oh shit. Copyright’s really boring.” Copyfighters, geeks and historically-minded boring bastards like me think it’s really gripping but it’s actually dry as dust. We need some stories to match the poor sod from Darts and the guy from the small faces quoted in yesterday’s Guardian. Come on Mr. PR Man! There’s your brief! Thinking cap on! :->

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