The Copyright Act of 1790 (which begins with “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by securing the Copies of Maps, Charts, and Books, to the Authors and Proprietors of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.”) was the first federal copyright act passed in the United States. It allowed for individuals to copyright their work for 14 years, and then renew their work for an additional 14 years. If someone were to “print, reprint, publish, or import a copyrighted map, chart, or book, without the consent of the author or proprietor obtained in writing and signed in the presence of two or more credible witnesses”, then they had to “forfeit every sheet and pay the sum of fifty cents for every sheet which was in his or her possession”.
Noah Webster (Founding Father, lexicographer, and namesake of the Merriam-Webster dictionary) pushed for the Copyright Act of 1831, doubling the length of the first term, increasing the total copyright duration by 50%. It also pushed for new standards, allowing for two years to register a work instead of one, the covering of musical compositions.
On 9 September 1886, the Berne Convention was signed by Belgium, France, Germany, Haiti, Italy, Liberia, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, and the United Kingdom. The Berne Convention took a totally new approach to copyright law, stating that a copyright exists on a work the moment it is “fixed”. (Note, the United States didn’t join until the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988).
Regardless, throughout the 20th century, the rate of content creation in all fields increased as advancements in medicine, technology, transportation, and more swept across the world. People worried more about the distribution of their work, what rights they had to it, how to restrict its use, and so on.
Many musicians became notorious proponents of copyright law. Sonny Bono, the once-husband of Cher, pursued a career as a politician after his music career died down, becoming a member of the House of Representatives and sponsoring a house bill promoting copyright. After Sonny suffered a sudden death, his wife Mary Bono became a U.S. Representative. She stated during a congressional meeting that “Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever. I am informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution.”
As the corporate revolution rolled through the 1900’s, the duration of copyrights seemed to be increasing more quickly than ever before:
Eventually, the Copyright Term Extension Act (also known as the Sony Bono Act) of 1998 extended copyright to last the life of an author plus 50 years (75 for a corporation). At this point, creations can be copyrighted for times longer than some people will even live, in my opinion a far cry from “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning”.
Of course, I don’t suggest we go back to 1790-style, requiring everyone pay 50 cents per page they violate. I think the was Berne Convention the greatest thing to happen to copyrights, and that 28 years is not enough to protect works that people simply want to hold their rights to for later points in their lives.
Today, people study, adapt, and amend the words of Shakespeare, all without worrying about copyright laws. I think this is a wonderful thing. But I am worried about how far things will go with laws in the future. Will the Shakespeares of our time have a copyright lasting 400 years? Will students centuries from now be unable to write their own creative adaptation of Harry Potter without fear of being sued by Rowling’s great great great grandson?
This is why I wish to dedicate the majority of my work to the public domain. This way, whether someone wants to use my material for personal or commercial use, to break it apart and use components of it in their own projects, or to reverse engineer it to create their own adaptation, they can. Some people are uncomfortable with this notion, they are haunted by the idea of others stealing their ideas for themselves. I understand that musicians may want to protect their songs from a business standpoint and that a company may wish to shield its creations from falling into others’ hands, but at the moment, I have nothing to hide. I’m delighted by the idea of my work being in the public domain while I live.
For works such as diagrams, videos, other other typical media I create, I favor dedicating to the public domain via the CC0 1.0. Believe it or not, these days it’s actually extremely hard to relinquish all your rights to your own work. The creators of the license, say that “while no tool, not even CC0, can guarantee a complete relinquishment of all copyright and database rights in every jurisdiction, we believe it provides the best and most complete alternative for contributing a work to the public domain given the many complex and diverse copyright and database systems around the world.” So if I state that I release something to the public domain on here, I promise I won’t sue you. And if you’re reading this 50 years after the death of Mark William Lalor, well then you can be sure that you’re good to go.
For free software I create, I favor the MIT License. It is simple and permissive, the only real requirement being that if you distribute the software with your own, you must include a copy of the license and copyright notice along with it. Ironically, it’s much easier to use this than to try to dedicate to the public domain. The MIT License retains copyright but is 6 times shorter. It’s effectively the same as releasing to the public domain, just requiring that anyone that uses the software pass on the small copyright notice attached to the original.
There’s always, always more to know on the topic. I suggest reading Why I Release Things into the Public Domain by Alex Cabal, learning about The GNU Project, becoming familiar with the goals of Creative Commons, and understanding what kind of licenses are out there. And of course, thinking long and hard about how much you want take advantage of copyright laws. A lot or a little, that’s just part of the beauty of where we are today.