The Ten Year Idea
Every idea has the potential to help and enrich our society and information must be free if we are to grow and progress as a society. People also like to be paid for their work. (I'm one of them!) A good middle ground has to be achieved and the general idea of copyrights and patents are a good solution. Unfortunately, today's versions of copyrights, patents, and trademarks have gone off the deep end.
The original idea of copyrights and patents was to make sure all information was freely available to the general public after a short amount of time. The window of time granted to the creator would give them an opportunity to recoup money they invested. (It doesn't mean the creator was guaranteed to make money, though.) Once that temporary time is up, all rights are supposed to be fully given up into the public domain.
I may not be able to change the laws (or how they are enforced), but I can try to control the works I produce to achieve what I think is a reasonable middle ground. As such, I am going to retain at least some copyright control of my works under current law for as long as I can. If someone wishes to copy or produce my works, they're going to have to follow my rules or risk copyright infringement. (For those who are thinking "But you released some of your works under the Creative Commons License!", keep reading. I'm not contradicting anything.)
It is my hope that my ideas will be considered when revamping the copyright, patent, and trademark laws. (Honestly, I'd be happy with any sane system.)
My idea is simple: People and / or companies should be able to earn money for ten years after publication for a given work. After that, society should not have to pay to use that work. They should be able to use it freely and make money off of it. That includes both copyrights and patents. (Trademarks are a different animal. I believe trademarks should be done differently than they are today, but because of the nature of trademarks, I'll tackle that separately from copyrights and patents.)
Why ten years? It seemed like a good round number to cover most if not all cases (including those outside of writing scripts and novels). I know arguments can be made for longer periods of time. There are also arguments being made to abolish copyright all together. There are good points on each side of that debate and I am keeping an open mind. Until I am convinced otherwise, I am going to push for ten years.
I'm sure there are holes that can be exploited in the details of my ideas. I'd welcome input from the outside to fully flush out The Ten Year Idea into a viable plan, or if something like it already exist, I'd happily point to it instead. The main reason why I am publicly placing my idea on the Internet is to help encourage reasonable debate on this topic so that the broken system is fixed.
There's actually a good definition of copyrights, patents, trademarks, and service marks at the U.S. Copyright office. I have not discussed service marks below, but it is worth considering in a more advanced version of the Ten Year Idea.
Another good description detailing the differences between copyrights and patents comes from CJAM.
Copyrights and Anything Written
My idea would be for the owner to put a price tag on the work. It could be $1 or $1,000,000,000 or even free, but every entity (person or company) would pay the same rate and follow the same rules for use. Let supply and demand dictate whether the creator becomes rich or not. From a societal point of view, that's unimportant. What is important is that if the idea can help society, it will. In 10 years, these items become free to use regardless of the creator's wishes. If the creator wanted to keep the information secret from society, then they should have never copyrighted it or released it!
I do expect that most entities will want to hide their creation at least for a short time. (I have been writing an epic novel for over 10 years! I'm not yet willing to release it since it is incomplete.) The ten year time frame should not count against the time it takes to create the master piece. If, on the other hand, the creator is ready to make money, the clock should start ticking.
What if an author wishes to share his or her work with a select few others for feedback as it is undergoing revision? How can an author protect him or herself from theft? I propose a "temporary copyright" good for up to one or two years. It would have to be renewed annually or else it automatically becomes a full copyright. The idea is to force the creator to actively work on it or release it to the public. Remember that the overall goal here is to get all ideas and creative works into the hands of the public and to encourage more creativity and active work.
Prices should be constant. It is very important that there is no special discount for any person or company -- even for bulk purchases. Everyone plays by the same rules. This allows all companies (large and small) to be on equal grounds. Government entities would not be exempt either. I also suggest prices can only be changed only once per day at midnight. (That is to prevent a malicious J.B. Wolf from specially pricing his books at exactly 2:57:25 AM on a Sunday to give an underhanded discount to some company. It also allows for genuine bargain sales and price changes by the owner.)
Note that a fixed copyright price by the creator is not to be confused with selling books on the Internet or from store shelves. An example: If I finish writing my novel, then I should set a fixed price through the copyright mechanism. For my example, let's say I place the cost at $10. Later, an Internet reseller might buy 1000 licenses of my novel at my fixed rate of $10. Then, they could sell 500 electronic copies at $15 each and 500 paperback copies for $20. All of those copies can then be sold to their customers. There should be nothing stopping them from adding value for their customers. There is also nothing stopping me from competing with them as well. I could not sell my creation for less than $10 unless I wanted to lose money. I could also endorse a specific company or autograph specific copies for small book stores so that it adds more value too, but all licenses of my book have to go through the copyright office. Even I should not be able to circumvent that.
As the creator, I would be allowed to give away samples of the work for free. Any samples I give away could not be sold for money and would have to be marked as "Not for sale". This means I can both sell my novel and give away samples at the same time during the ten years. The ones marked as sample could not be sold at all by anyone -- even if I wrapped it in gold and autographed it. All of the extra amenities would have to be free as well. For instance, if I gave away a sample to someone in my family, they could not sell it until the 10 year copyright is up. After the copyright expires, the samples could then be sold. This prevents loop holes for discounts to specific companies.
In fiction, character names and usage should also be protected for 10 years so that the author can establish his or her "brand". (This ties into my ideas with trademarking, but those specifics will be addressed in that section.) If a person wishes to write a novel similar to mine with completely different characters and they do not plagiarize, then that becomes their work and their effort. No one should be able to stop them. (How many times has Romeo and Juliet been written without the "Romeo" and "Juliet"?) Once the ten years are up, though, anyone can write about those characters in anyway and anyone can make copies of the novel.
This means as an author, it would be my right to prevent fans from writing fan fiction for 10 years. (Personally, I think it would be stupid, but this is about the creator's freedom of choice. My suggestion would be to let the fans write whatever they want so long as they specifically point out that the characters are not theirs, they reference the original work, and do not sell what they create. Anyone who goes through the trouble of writing fan fiction because they love your work can only help your cause. Free publicity is awesome.)
Fair use (including parodies) should, of course, be protected. People should be able to quote my book for academic or news worthy purposes.
I specifically talked about stories and novels as examples, but "anything written" also includes things like computer programs.
The creator would also retail full control over any translations during those 10 years. Using my novel as an example, I would choose which languages it gets translated into and make whatever deals I want concerning the use of those translations. (These translations would also be subject to the 10 year copyright. Once those translations are registered at the copyright office, they should be able to be linked to the original.) Once my 10 years are up, anyone can translate my novel and those translations would then fall under copyright of the translator for 10 years.
Copyright and Images
Images would be subject to the same rules as the written word although some differences need to be talked about.
For instance, what if I produced a comic book about blue dogs from outer space? All of my blue dog characters in the comic book could not be reproduced for 10 years, i.e., no other comic book could draw blue dogs exactly like my blue dogs. There is nothing stopping them from making their own comic book about blue dogs in outer space, though.
Specific photographs would be protected for 10 years. If I take a picture of the Statue of Liberty from a particular spot at a particular time of day with a particular camera, I could legally prevent others from making copies of that photograph for 10 years. There is nothing stopping another person from taking the same shot 30 seconds later with the same model camera and producing a very nearly identical picture, though. That becomes their copyright.
Copyright and Songs, Sounds
All sounds (including songs and audio books) would also be copyrighted for 10 years. In the case of something like an audio book, the audio portion could not be transcribed and then resold by a 3rd party. The creator would retain the transcription rights for 10 years.
Copyright and Other Media
Movies are a combination of the written word, images, and sound. At this time, I do not believe the combination generates any gray areas, but I would be interested in hearing feedback from others who might see some kind of problem.
Unlike copyrights, the information contained in patents can be copied freely at anytime. The creator, however, can set the price for using the patent. The creator would retain rights for 10 years. After the 10 years are up, the public can freely do what they want with the patent. Here are the differences between copyrights and patents:
Trademarks are a completely different beast. A product made by one company has to be able to stand out from another company's product.
Going with the idea that all copyrights and patents should be freely available to the public after 10 years, that shouldn't discourage the original company from making money of their original product. Star Wars is an excellent example. Star Wars was first brought to the movie screen in 1977 and if my ideas had been used, anyone should be able to make Star Wars toys and copy the original script and movie by 1987. Empire Strikes Back material (including script, music, video, and any characters created specifically for that movie) would be publicly available in 1990 (since the movie was released in 1980). Using only my proposal, how could George Lucas make money off of making a new Star Wars in 1999 if everyone else is making their own Star Wars movie?
With my idea of trademarks, that is entirely possible. Fans will know there is only "one official" Star Wars and it was created and owned by George Lucas. He could have associated "Lucasfilm" with "Star Wars" the entire time. Today, it would be known as Disney's Star Wars. In other words, the trademark can be attached to any product the company makes to distinguish it from every other company.
They say pictures are worth a thousand words. I believe trademarks must require a name, but an optional picture can also be included meaning no one else can use that picture for as long as the corporation is in existence or until they change their trademark picture. That can help the company distinguish their product on store shelves or on the Internet. Note that only one picture can be trademarked at a time; multiple pictures are not allowed otherwise multiple trademarked pictures would be a workaround for the ten year idea on the copyright!
Another option would be one sound and / or one video that can also be assigned to a trademark. This allows for jingles and brand product recognition. Prime candidates that I can think of in the movie industry would be Disney's castle (shown at the beginning of every movie) or MGM's roaring lion or Universal's spinning world.
I believe a company should have no more than one trademark at a time, but what if a company folds or is sold? Continuing with the example of Star Wars, George Lucas sold his empire to Disney in 2012. In this case, Disney could continue to use Lucasfilm for a certain amount of time (I propose 5 years) so they have time to transition over to their primary trademark. (They can pick "Disney" or they can pick "Lucasfilm", but after those 5 years, they can no longer use both.) In essence, this 5 year period will temporarily give them two trademarks.
Assuming Disney wishes to discard the Lucasfilm trademark, the name "Lucasfilm" and any other trademark information (like the trademark image or video) would be retired for 10 years. This prevents an underhanded company from coming and scooping up the Lucasfilm trademark, making Star Wars toys or movies under that name, and making life miserable for Disney. Disney needs time to firmly establish that they own "the" original Star Wars and they should be able to market it as such. After 10 years, the Lucasfilm trademark can then be recycled and reused.
I believe every copyright and patent should be associated with a company and every company should have a trademark. It should also be very easy (and very cheap) for a single person to start and maintain a company with such a trademark and expensive for a single company to have multiple "sub companies". Why?
I don't want to be confused with some copycat named J.B. Wolf. (I also don't want to be confused with another legitimate author named J.B. Wolf.) I also don't want large, rich companies buying up every single word in the dictionary and preventing me from getting a good trademark. The idea is to keep things simple and fair. I won't go into more details about multiple companies at this time since that is a different topic than what I'm trying to tackle.
The paper "Forever Minus a Day? Some Theory and Empirics of Optimal Copyright", written by Dr. Rufus Pollock of Cambridge University in 2007, is well beyond my understanding, but it is a mathematical analysis describing the optimal copyright length. On page 30, he says it is 15 years. Others with a more complete understanding of high level mathematics can analyze it. My goal is not to force my idea on others. My goal is to fix the problems we currently have with the copyright / patent system and find an optimal solution. I know my original idea will not be perfect and I welcome legitimate challenges so that the idea can be improved.
I have copied Dr. Pollock's original paper to my website per the copyright given on his website. He is using the creative commons license found here. The original link to his paper can be found on his website.
Jason gives an interesting and passionate viewpoint stating that copyrights need to expire. It's not a question of should they expire, but when.
I have no affiliation with either of these people, but I found what they said thoughtful and provocative.
Ten Year Idea Section of the Website last updated on July 3, 2014