David Gerard recently pointed out that despite recent expansion of the global commons of “freely-licensed knowledge”, all license terms still last for much too long. “Free licenses” still rely on copyright laws which impose restrictions on reuse for unreasonably long term lengths: currently “Life of the author + 70 years” in most countries — roughly 10-50x as long as the average commercial lifespan of a new work.
Economists and researchers studying copyright have often noted that copyright terms have been extended with little justification, always on the request of the publishing industry, since the first copyright term (14 years) was set centuries ago. And that there is no data to suggest that longer copyright terms are good for society or useful in encouraging creative work.
The social memes of “free culture” and “free knowledge” have been shaped in large part by a community that bought into the idea of copyleft in the past decades: a derivative of copyright law which defines the copyrights the author wishes to exercise in a way that lets people reuse their work, as long as they release the result under the same license.
We should figure out a reasonable maximum term for the sort of rights that are currently covered by copyright – say, something no more than 14 years – and embed that term into the most-recommended free culture licenses. That includes all Creative Commons and free-culture and other FOSS licenses. All of these licenses should explicitly transition to the Public Domain before the ultralong default term enshrined in international law.
(In practice this could mean automatically switching to a CC0 license at the end of the shorter term.)
Related discussions about license reform
David’s comments started a recent discussion on the Wikimedia-l mailing list, about whether Wikimedians should help push for a saner copyright term. Mike Linksvayer noted similar discussions on the Creative Commons licenses list from last December – part of brainstorming how to improve those licenses.
Two people made comments along these lines: “Shortening the copyright term is totally infeasible in the near term; instead we should encourage people to switch to free licenses.“
This misses two key points. Firstly, free culture groups are now some of the largest around; they include major content providers and platforms; and Creative Commons itself is a powerful global brand. Secondly, while convincing slow, conservative national governments to change their laws is hard, almost everyone who is not working/lobying for content publishers — including the vast majority of content creators — feels copyright terms are too long. So this is an obvious place for citizen innovation to come first, and legislation second.
A few publishers are already adopting limited terms. O’Reilly Books uses a license that switches to CC-BY after 14 years.
Some free culture groups have taken a position here as well: Sweden’s Pirate Party advocates for a maximum term of 5 years. Richard Stallman of the FSF recommends a maximum of 5 or 10 years (though only for society as a whole; and only if it comes with open source requirements for proprietary software).
What can we do? Won’t this make free licenses harder to use?
Adding an explicit term after which works become PD should not complicate the “opt-in commons”, to use Mike’s term. This could be implemented with a few simple changes (I am imagining how CC could implement this; as they have great authority to recommend licensing norms):
- Define “PD-friendly” licenses as those which become PD in at most N years.
- Define the PD-date of a composite work as the latest of its component sources.
- Ask people to use a PD-friendly license.
Within that framework, people can use terms that make sense to them; some may want a license with a fixed PD date, so that a large group can collaborate on a shared work which is set to become PD in 2020. Ongoing collaborations like Wikipedia could use a license set to become PD after 8 years – so the latest version of a project would always be under a CC-SA license, but one from today would become PD in 2020.
Creative Commons and others could then promote the use of PD-friendly licenses. Collaboratives like Wikimedia communities, and publishers like O’Reilly, could switch to those licenses for their projects and works. Together we would return to building a true intellectual and artistic Commons — something which in the US has been starved of almost all works produced in the past 35 years.
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