A week ago, in a comment on the Eldred v. Ashcroft decision, I pointed at Spider Robinson‘s short story, “Melancholy Elephants”, where he argues against perpetual copyrights.

Dori Smith & Tom Negrino’s Backup Brain today points at an editorial called “The Mouse’s pro Bono project”, also written by Spider Robinson, about the decision.

First of all, it seems that “Melancholy Elephants” won the 1983 Hugo Award for best short story. My apologies for overlooking that fact in my first comment.

In the editorial, Spider writes:

Prof. Lessig argues that Congress only has the right to permit copyright within limits: Apparently, in his view, 50 years is a limit but 70 somehow is not. To explore this, let’s shift perspective 180 degrees from Disney, and focus on the exact opposite end of the financial spectrum: me.

…I’ve written 32 books so far. I believe I’ve earned what money they’ve brought me (and then some!), and I hope they’ll stay in print awhile after I’m gone.

So when I do snuff it, I’d like to leave them, and any money they may fetch (the wee percentage the publishers, producers and taxmen won’t keep) to my daughter Terri — just like any other craftsman would. I don’t think that’s an outrageous, capitalist-pig desire: It’s a large part of why the stories exist in the first place.

…I wish we were done with irony now. “Melancholy Elephants” was originally dedicated to the remarkable Virginia Heinlein, Robert Heinlein’s widow. On Jan. 18, Ginny passed away in her sleep in Florida, surrounded by family and friends. She leaves several descendants – one 3 years old – and I don’t see why they should get ripped off because “information wants to be free.”

Well, I sympathize with Spider’s point… up to a point. Certainly individual author’s surviving spouses and children should be entitled to continue holding the copyright for a reasonable time – perhaps for the lifetime of the spouse and until the children reach majority or a certain age. I’m not sure I agree about grandchildren or great-grandchildren…

I certainly don’t think that corporations should be similarly entitled, or for the same time span as individuals; the humanitarian argument certainly is inappropriate here. 95 years, as currently established, is clearly aimed solely at protecting the interests of a very small minority of powerful corporations.

Lawrence Lessig has published a very interesting proposal:

…I describe a proposal that would move more work into the public domain than a total victory in the Supreme Court would have. The basic idea is this: 50 years after a work has been “published,” a copyright owner would be required to pay a copyright tax. That tax should be extremely low – this proposal says $50, but it could be $1. If the copyright holder does not pay the tax for 3 years, then the work is forfeit to the public domain. If the copyright holder does pay the tax, then its contacting agent would be made a matter of public record. Very quickly we would have a cheap, searchable record, of what work is controlled and what work is free.

This sounds both effective (at least in its intent to revive the public domain) and doable, although it fails to distinguish between individual and corporate copyright owners. Raising the value – say, to $50,000 – would only give the Disneys another unfair advantage, as this would still be insignificant to them. Hm…