Thursday, June 05, 2008

A 10-year old's copyright questions

My ten year old was examining the back of the box of one of his (currently) favorite CDs when I got home yesterday. After a repeated and thorough inspection he told me he didn't think the CD was copyrighted because it didn't have the © symbol. He was pleased because he's been thinking about doing a re-mix of some of the tracks.

I explained that just because the copyright symbol wasn't on the box did not mean the CD was not copyrighted...

"Ok then dad. How do I know if something is copyrighted or not?"

"Good question. And funny enough it's not too easy to answer. There is nowhere - no single place anyway - we can go to check up on whether something is covered by copyright or not. Usually if something is recently recorded you'll find it is protected by copyright, even if it doesn't have the © symbol."

"But how do I know if it is not copyrighted?"

"Well. It might have a notice on the box saying it was released under a creative commons licence." (We had the CC talk a long time ago)

"What about if it is not CC?"

"Well then it depends on when the copyright-protected thing was made up and how long the copyright lasts. So Mozart's music which was created hundreds of years ago is not protected by copyright."

"How long does copyright last then?"

"Ah... well for an author or a music composer it will last for the life of the author/composer plus seventy years. So it runs out 70 years after the author dies."

"Hmmm... is it really that long? That seems a lot."

"Yes it is quite a long time but it also depends on what is covered by the copyright. So the copyright in a sound recording only lasts fifty years."

"What? What's a sound recording when it comes to copyright?"

"What's on your CD is the sound recording. So the person that wrote the music gets copyright in the composition until 70 years after they die. And the person who sings the song or plays the instruments in a recording studio gets 50 years copyright coverage for recording the song. Or often it can be the company that owns the studio where the song was recorded that gets the 50 years worth of copyright protection."

"Hang on. You're saying there are lots of different copyrights in the same thing? Is that right?"


"That's a bit complicated isn't it. Lots of copyrights for lots of people and companies. 50 years, 70 years after someone dies. So copyright can last for 140 years or more? Isn't that really a bit too long."

"Lots of people think so. You know when copyright started in England in 1709 it only lasted for 14 years. The author could ask for it to go on for another 14 years after that but the basic cover was 14 years."

"Now that's much more sensible."

So it would seem that Jack has come to the same conclusion as Cambridge economist Rufus Pollock. Is it that because, like Phillip Pulllman's Lyra Belacqua and her alethiometer, he is just able to see things more clearly now and when he reaches adulthood he'll have to engage in detailed and arduous research to attain the same understanding at a deeper level? Or is it because the copyright system is so out of synch with what it should be that even (or maybe especially) a ten year old can tell it needs fixing?

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