I was working on my own response to the recent Mark Helprin op-ed in the New York Times when I learned that Lawrence Lessig, Stanford law professor and blogger, maintains a wiki where a response is being edited. There are some uniquely American aspects to this discussion (such as the unconstitutionality of an infinite term of copyright) but the access to culture and the promise to be able to build on culture are not uniquely American. Ironically, while Helprin gives no value to the public domain, another supporter of his argument draws great value from the public domain: the Disney corporation, a chief supporter of increase copyright term, makes a great deal of money by making movies out of stories in the public domain. This doesn’t draw too sharp a line between Disney and their proponents because Disney can afford to pay for any license that company wants.
If you’re looking for more discussion on why the term of copyright should not be extended I direct your attention to the Prof. Jonathan Zittrain’s talk and the subsequent discussion. Like many such discussions, this one came about in part because corporate copyright holders (this time record labels and popular wealthy artists) are pressuring government (this time British) for more copyright power. In time, these same people and organizations will pressure American government for “harmony” in the term of copyright (a scam that is brought out to increase copyright power). They play countries off each other because it has a history of working, despite growing opposition including an increasingly media-aware public that knows they’re getting a raw deal.
Making copyright last forever can be thought of as a huge increase in the term of copyright, so the discussions about increasing the term of copyright are apropos. Copyright already lasts too long and one can argue it’s already infinite in term through repeated exploitation of the “limited Times” language in the US Constitution. Helprin celebrates exploiting renewable retrospective copyright extension and Justice Breyer’s dissent in Eldred v. Ashcroft points out that “The present extension will produce a copyright period of protection that, even under conservative assumptions, is worth more than 99.8% of protection in perpetuity (more than 99.99% for a songwriter like Irving Berlin and a song like Alexander’s Ragtime Band).”). Giving copyright holders more exclusion power is neither necessary nor a good idea.