TOPICS : How long should copyright last?

In 1735 William Hogarth, after a lively public campaign, helped to pass an act in the UK giving engravers the rights to their work for 14 years from publication. It was a landmark in the history of copyright as it bestowed on engravers similar legal rights to authors and stopped sellers of prints from creaming off all the profits. Hogarth would be amazed today to find that in the US copyright has been extended to 70 years — not from the date of publication, but from the death of the author. In Britain it was regarded as rather bold of the Gowers report — on which the government will pronounce soon — to suggest that Britain should keep the existing limit of “only” 50 years after death.

It is curious there is so much pressure to extend copyright in an internet age defined by the willingness to share knowledge freely, ranging from Wikipedia to the genome project. The reason? Producer lobbies are far more powerful than difficult-to-organise consumer ones. The most formidable of all, outside farming, is the Copyright Alliance of America, embracing the film and music industries, which is asking presidential candidates to answer such loaded questions as: “How do you feel the rights that have served our economy and spurred creativity in the physical world should apply in the digital world?”

The problem is that the debate is dominated by the music and film industries perpetuating the myth that an entire generation of children is being brought up to believe music is free by right through internet downloads. Don’t blame the kids, blame the industry. The same kids are paying up to $6 a shot for inferior ringtones. They are only downloading for free where the music industry has failed to provide an affordable payments system free of ridiculous restrictions about only playing a track on one device without copying it, etc. Such constraints make criminals of us all. Where there is a half-decent payments system (eg, Apple’s iPhone or Nokia’s music system), punters pay.

John Tehranian, a law professor at the University of Utah, has totted up all the infringements he could have made in a typical day — from forwarding someone else’s email without permission to downloading and distributing a Supreme Court judgment to his pupils. If others were as diligent as the music industry in suing people, it could have cost him more than $12m (GBP5.8m) a day in fines or more $4.5bn a year — excluding peer-to-peer downloads.

At issue is how far society would benefit if we could use others’ creativity after a decent interval instead of a ludicrous 50 or 70 years after death, given that most sales of books and music happen a few months after release. Instead of the issue being decided by the most powerful lobby, how would it look if we could compile an independent balance of the benefits arising to society from quicker access against the cost to individuals of losing

their rights? Rufus Pollock of Cambridge University has done such a study. He told the seminar that the optimal length of copyright came out at 15 years. Hogarth would have been unsurprised. — The Guardian