Yglesias and Megan McArdle offer a pair of interesting posts on copyright law. Perhaps because most Americans don’t think copyright law is something they should care about, copyright law is transparently written at the behest of large corporations. Yglesias points out that never-ending copyright extensions have the effect of “orphaning” the vast body of work that does not anchor multi-billion dollar media corporations:
After all, most decades-old works aren’t valuable. And most aren’t owned by large ongoing business enterprises. But even though this vast back catalog consists of works with little monetary value, they could still each individually be of interest to some people and collectively they’re of enormous use. But right now, if you stumble across something old and forgotten, it’s often not clear how you would even go about getting the rights to it. Oftentimes a person may not even know that he or she is the heir to an obscure copyright owned by a great-uncle or some such.
Ideally, we’d write fair laws that served the public, Disney’s lobbyists notwithstanding. Since that isn’t an option, what if we allowed copyrights to expire with the author’s death by default, but provided an option to apply for an automatic extension of a few decades? Those with an interest in continuing to monetize their right to a work, whether the Disney Corporation or J.K. Rowling’s heirs, would apply for the extension; those who don’t care, or whose rights are effectively worthless — the great majority of copyright-holders — wouldn’t. Such a system would protect the corporate interest currently controlling copyright legislation while also allowing forgotten work to be republished or made available on Project Gutenburg.