I wrote a letter to some newspapers recently, and I think it might be enjoyed over here. So I thought I'd post it. I babble rather too long, about a subject that bores too many people, so it probably won't make print. But here goes:
I just put a book in the mail again. It's my tattered sixteenth printing of Lucile Morrison's "Lost Queen of Egypt." This book has been out of print for decades, and I loan it to at least two or three new readers every year. It's not a spectacularly important book, just a once-popular piece of young adult fiction published in the 1930's. It contains no great governmental secrets or dangerous ideas. Walt Disney has not seen fit to make a movie out of it. Simply put, the book is no threat to anyone. It is not making any money for any publisher. And it is firmly out of reach of the public domain, thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension of 1988. It will continue to be so, as long as the nice folks at the Walt Disney Company keep paying our congressmen for eternal copyright on the installment plan.
I love this book. But no school library is going to carry it today, as they did when I was growing up in the seventies. They cannot afford it. No sixth grade girl is going to stumble over a copy, discover Ancient Egypt and fall in love with the Amarna Period, as I did, unless a collector puts the book into their hands.
"Lost Queen of Egypt" was due to enter public domain concurrent with Disney's "Steamboat Willie" cartoon. This unfortunate coincidence, coupled with the heavy lobbying of our lawmakers by Disney and its subsidiaries, will keep this book forever out of the reach of its target audience. This would be a terrible thing in its own right. But Morrison's book is merely one of thousands of pieces of media essentially locked up, locked away, by this misguided piece of legislation. Right now, as I write this, there are early twentieth century newsreels and films, relics of our national history, disintegrating to dust. They are unable to be restored because of their copyright situation. There are books that will never interest another publisher, which cannot be legally distributed by any means, regardless of whether an audience exists for them.
The public needs to be made aware of the manner in which our rights in the public domain have been stolen from us. Were Walt Disney alive today, he could not legally create his "Steamboat Willie" cartoon, because that cartoon itself was a derivative of Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill" movie. The Disney corporation has ensured, through their deep pockets and legalized bribery, that no creator of new content is able to do to them, what Walt himself did to the Brothers Grim and Buster Keaton.
We as a culture are poorer for it.
The copyright issues facing this country are not about property rights. They're not about "theft" or "piracy" or any of the other buzzwords the RIAA, MPAA, and the like enjoy in their thirty second soundbytes. The issue is public culture- who controls it and who benefits thereby. Right now, the only people benefiting are those with enough money to bribe the senate and the house of representatives. Our common culture is for sale, and big business is buying. Congress is having a bargain basement fire sale of our intellectual liberties while we sit around arguing over who got a low-quality digital copy of this week's number one bubblegum pop tune without paying for it.