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Two Tweet Threads About Copyright

John Scalzi

Presented here for archival purposes, and also because I know not all of you go to the Twitters.

Background: Writer Matthew Yglesias, who should have known better but I guess needed the clicks, offered up the opinion that the term of copyright should be shortened to 30 years (currently in the US it’s Life+70 years). This naturally outraged other writers, because copyrights let them make money. This caused a writer by the name of Tim Lee to wonder why people were annoyed by Yglesias’ thought exercise, since he thought 30 years was more than enough time for people to benefit from their books (NB: Lee has not written a book himself), and anyway, as he said in a follow up tweet: “Nobody writes a book so that the royalties will support them in retirement decades later. They’re mostly thinking about the money they’ll make in the next few years.”

This is where I come in.

First Twitter Thread about Copyright, from yesterday:

The fuck we don't, pal

I write books as a fucking business, thank you very much, and part of my business is the long tail — creating a body of work that is saleable for many years. It's one reason I have that long contract with Tor: All my novels at one house, motivated to keep it *all* in print.

MOREOVER, a backlist I control means the ability to sell older novels as new in foreign markets and into other media formats years after the were originally published. Those additional publications/adaptations feed into backlist sales of the original work, and thus, royalties.

It is true that no one knows how well a book will sell in the long run — but then no one knows how well they will sell in the short run, either. Authors should have the opportunity to benefit from their work whenever (and if ever) it generates income, certainly in their life.

If you were to ask me the ideal copyright length for individuals: Life+25 (or 75 years, whichever is longer). This way I can profit from my work, and so can my spouse if I die before her. My grandkids can work for a living. Corporations: 75 years.

I get annoyed when people who clearly don't know my business opine about my fucking business, why I do it, and how I do it. I'm an "artist" but I tend to my career and I have built a business for a long haul. Which, yes, includes royalties as a potential long-term income stream.

Done with this nonsense now.


After this was was the usual back and forth by people who don’t seem to know much about copyright and/or have a pet idea they think is actually useful (but usually isn’t) and/or wanted to go a-trollin’. Dealing with all of these prompted a second thread about copyright, which I posted today:

1. So, as a follow-up to yesterday’s thread and comments about copyrights and lengths thereof, some additional thoughts about the practical and theoretical issues revolving copyrights, their length and copyrightable intellectual property in general. Ready? Here we go:

2. To begin, the pipe dream of a 30-year-term of copyright really is just that, a pipe dream. 179 countries including the US are signatories to the Berne Convention, a treaty tightly wound into the World Trade Organization. Here’s the actual text:

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Convention_for_the_Protection_of_Literary_and_Artistic_Works

3. Basically, the Berne Convention and its terms are the “floor” for copyrights; you can’t offer less protection than it offers and be a signatory. A copyright term of 30 years-and-out is, uhh, *less.* It is not seriously going to be considered any time soon. So, it’s Life+50, folks.

4. Now, and of course, you may rail, if your heart desires, about the injustice of this particular term of copyright; I myself would trim it back a bit to life+25. But unless you convince 179 national signatories to amend a highly standardized and *functional enough* treaty, meh.

5. Beyond that very practical issue, there’s the matter that you need to make a compelling moral, ethical AND economic argument to copyright holders that they should accede to your revised-but-certainly-less-than-current copyright term. Spoiler: Good luck with that!

6. The moral/ethical case is ironically the easiest to make: think of the public good! And indeed the public domain is a vital good, which should be celebrated and protected — no copyright should run forever. It should be tied to the benefit of the creator, then to the public.

7. Where you run into trouble is arguing to a creator that *their* copyright should be *less* than the term of their life (plus a little bit for family). It’s difficult enough to make money as a creator; arguing that tap should be stoppered in old age, is, well. *Unconvincing.*

8. Likewise, limiting that term limits a creator’s ability to earn from their work in less effable ways. If there’s a 30-year term of copyright and my work is at year 25, selling a movie/tv option is likely harder, not only because production takes a long time (trust me)…

9. …but also because after a certain point, it would make sense to just wait out the copyright and exclude the originator entirely. A too-short copyright term has an even *shorter* economic shelf-life than the term, basically. Why on earth would creators agree to that?

10. (Not to mention that if creators *do* want to offer their creations in a substantively freer fashion to the public before their copyright term expires, they already have options via Creative Commons and estate planning; for those folks, it’s a somewhat solved problem.)

11. But wait, you say, copyright terms used to be shorter! Yes! They were! And at one time they didn’t exist at all! But that’s not *now.* And *now* is what you have to work with. And *now,* it would be you who has to make a compelling argument to lower those term lengths.

12. Let me come at it from another direction: You want things in the public domain quicker. Okay! But what do I get for agreeing to this, that *replaces* my ability to control and benefit from my creations? Are you offering UBI? Universal health care? A robust safety net?

13. If the answer to the above questions is “no,” then fuck you, pal, I got no reason to play your silly game. I live in the US of fucking A, where we have shitty wages, shitty health care and a truly shitty safety net. My creations are how I eat, pay bills, and care for family.

14. “But you can just write other things!” Sure. OR, I can write other things AND still control the things I’ve written before. “But society benefits from public domain!” Sure! AND they’ll benefit even more if I can live comfortably to create more things to go into PD later.

15. Want to make a robustly moral AND economic argument for shorter copyright terms? You MUST start with building a society that does not punish creators for having those shorter terms. Until and unless you do, your words won’t convince creators whose lives depend on copyrights.

16. In sum: Practically, copyright terms are settled (and slightly too long), but even if they weren’t, we have not (in the US at least) created a society where shorter copyright terms make sense for many creators. Let’s create that society! I’d be happy to revisit this then.

17. Thanks for your attention. And now, as usual, a cat picture to close out the thread. Here’s Zeus, all casual.

Always close out on a cat.

— JS

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