The original intention behind copyright was to encourage people to share their creative works with Society At Large by offering a short-term monopoly over their distribution in return for a promise that those works would eventually pass into the Public Domain and be able to be shared freely by everyone. At the time, this was seen as, if not the best solution, then the least unfair compromise: better for the Public Domain to be enriched eventually than not at all. Copyright enabled authors to be sure that the publishers of their works — who had access to the means of reproducing them — were not ripping them off.
Over time, natural erosion has shifted the goalposts. Ownership of printing presses and record-cutting apparatus — or, at any rate, their modern equivalents in the form of general-purpose computers — has expanded to include members of the general public, and publishers — while by no means utterly redundant — are generally less necessary than has been the case in the past. The duration of copyright, meanwhile, has repeatedly become extended and copyright (by the way, even this is a complete misnomer: it is a privilege, not a right) itself has been subverted into a way of repeatedly making money year upon year after doing something only once. (I’d love to see the look on Sir Cliff Richard’s face if his plumber knocked on his door demanding a royalty fee every time the tortoise-necked old fart flushed his toilet.)
And the Public Domain is not being enriched in the way that was envisaged at the time copyright was originally conceived.
I believe that it is time to reconsider altogether whether, in the 21st Century where almost everyone has access to the wherewithal for reproducing information, the grant of a temporary monopoly to the original creator of a work is still the least unfair way to ensure that the Public Domain continues to be enriched by the creation of new works which can be freely shared by everyone.
What else can we do, then? I honestly don’t know, and I welcome suggestions.
It’s often assumed implicitly that the incentive to add work to the Public Domain needs to be measured in pounds, shillings and pence. But that’s not necessarily the case.
The world’s most famous software licence agreement relies on existing copyright law to give Section Six legal weight, but a law requiring the distributor of any computer program to supply Source Code would achieve roughly the same effect.
Now, before you make the valid point that “programmers/musicians/authors have to eat”, I say this: Nobody is saying they have to program/make music/write books in order to eat! Not everything you do in this life gets an automatic cash reward. If Severn Trent paid us all for the shite we flush into their sewers, that argument might carry more weight.
One thing I do believe, though: The creator of a work definitely deserves the right to be identified as such, for the duration of living memory. In cases where an original work is modified by another but not beyond all recognition, the creator of the original work deserves to be credited first and if the modifier does not wish their name associated with the modified version then they must credit to the original author “and others”, lest it be falsely assumed against the wishes of the original author that they were responsible for the modified work in its entirety.