A copyright is a temporary monopoly granted to a creator for a short time, so that, in that time period, they will face no competition in marketing their new work. In this way the system encourages new works by ensuring that creators can benefit financially from their creation, for that short time. New creative works come from existing creative works. Artists and writers are inspired by what they read and see, and today's filmmakers use ideas from the long history of theater as well as from the shorter histories of cinema and television. These existing works have benefited their creator, and have then moved on. When a work's copyright ends, the work is elevated into the Public Domain and others can create new works based on the older work without having to get permission from, or give money to, the creator. An often quoted example of this is that many of Walt Disney Corporation's most successful movies are based on the ancient myths and folklore of world culture, which are in the Public Domain, and are free for them to use to create new works. On the other hand, if you want to put a remix of someone else's hit song from last year on your new album, then you are required to arrange that with the copyright holder. Years later, when the copyright expires, people will be able to perform both songs in public, or include them in their own work.
Despite the persistent works of archivists, much of the cultural production of the early twentieth century (and more) is in danger of being lost. Organizations (like Project Gutenberg), and individuals (like Eric Eldred) work to preserve these works by reproducing them in computers, and strive to make them available to the public. Their efforts were hampered throughout the 1990s by the length of copyright and poor record keeping by copyright holders. Works cannot be legally distributed until it is confirmed they are out of copyright, or permission is given. It is often quite difficult to determine the copyright status of a particular work for various reasons including old paper records that have not been digitized, acquisitions and mergers amongst copyright holding companies, and the expense of hiring legal researchers to search for copyright filings. Many works of value are literally rotting away because their copyright status cannot be determined (This is particularly a problem for early motion picture film which degrades even in climate controlled vaults). Under the new copyright system, as enacted by Congress in the CTEA and DMCA, all works were granted an additional twenty years of copyright. Some works already in the Public Domain were dragged back into copyright, and no new work has entered the Public Domain since the CTEA's retroactive copyright extension. Some people have suggested that Congress intends a perpetual copyright and will extend copyright again in twenty years to prevent the term of any copyright from expiring.
What bad laws can do, good laws can undo, and what Congress has given away can be taken back if concerned citizens act. The work of Eldred Press is a shining example of this. With the assistance of famed constitutional law professor Larry Lessig and the backing of several diverse publishing, library, and archivist organizations, they sued the United States government over the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA). They appealed their case all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court (Eldred v. Ashcroft), which upheld the law while chiding Congress for passing it. Undeterred, they have moved into the next phase of their plan to save pubic domain art and literature.
What if after the first term of copyright expired, copyright holders had to register for an automatic extension, rather than automatically receiving one? This is actually quite close to the way the U. S. Copyright system functioned before the 1970s. In this new (old) proposal, all published works would be copyright the creator for a set term. At the expiration of this term, the creator could apply for an automatic extension (as granted by the CTEA) by filing a form online with the Copyright Office. This filing would designate a point of contact for all questions about the work and it's copyright status, thus greatly reducing the burden on librarians, publishers and archivists. If at the expiration of the first term, the creator declined the extension formally then the work would be registered in the Public Domain. Either way the Copyright Office has the data and can publish the information. This proposal would allow works that are no longer commercially viable to easily and formally enter the Public Domain, which they would not otherwise do. This is idea behind the proposed "Public Domain Enhancement Act."
Go read up on the issues, and read the proposed act. If you feel as I do that this is a step back in the right direction, go sign the petition and contact your Congressional Representatives to tell them to support this act, soon to be introduced in the House. (Those outside the US can worry about Software Patents today instead, if they choose.)
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