The Technium

What the Public Commons Is Missing


The natural home for ideas and creations is in the commonwealth, the public domain. We cleverly give the creators of ideas and art and inventions a temporary monopoly for their creations outside of the commonwealth in order to encourage them to make more new things. That is good. For a while that temporary period in the US was 58 years after the work was created for copyright and 17 years for patents.

Unfortunately, as creators became corporations, they have lobbied for laws (and financially supported the elections of lawmakers) that have extended the “temporary” period till it is in effect, unlimited for copyright.

That means that many works of film, literature, and music that ordinarily would have gone into the public domain this year (ones finished by 1955) will not. This page lists some of the 1955 works that are not going public: Lady and the Tramp; To Catch a Thief, The End of Eternity, etc.

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It is in the interest of culture to have a large and dynamic public domain. The greatest classics of Disney were all based on stories in the public domain, and Walt Disney showed how public domain ideas and characters could be leveraged by others to bring enjoyment and money. But ironically, after Walt died, the Disney corporation became the major backer of the extended copyright laws, in order to keep the very few original ideas they had – like Mickey Mouse – from going into the public domain. Also ironically, just as Disney was smothering the public domain, their own great fortunes waned because they were strangling the main source of their own creativity, which was public domain material. They were unable to generate their own new material, so they had to buy Pixar.

A tragedy of the commons occurs when members behave selfishly and deny the commons what is due. As Disney shows, when members keep their creations out of the common pool for others to exploit, their gain is only short lived. Mickey Mouse, Superman, and eventually Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker all belong in the commons. The world will be a better place when they are.

We should repeal unreasonable intellectual property laws, to keep the incentives for a period no longer than the life of its creators (how can you be invented if you are dead?). But in the meantime, imagine what the creative public could do with these works, and weep – because nothing like that will happen for a very long time.




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