Monday, January 22, 2007

Neil Gaiman - the reason copyright must expire

The idea behind copyright is that we give artists exclusive rights to anything that they create for a limited time. During this time, they get to charge what they like, restrict the use of the art as they like (within established limits) and generally do what they like. In return, when the copyright expires, we as a society get their creation to do with as we please.

That's the standard abstract argument as to why we need a limit on how long copyright lasts. The problem is that most of the dross produced today is of so little use or interest to most people that they just don't care if they ever get to 'use' it. Add to that the fact that most people consume and have no interest in creation and you can see why our culture is getting raped by our governments and the lobbyists.

On of the biggest projects out there doing stuff with public domain works is Project Gutenberg. They're digitising books that have entered the public domain to ensure that they are around for future generations. They are often used as a shining example of why we need limited time copyright, and no technological protections beyond this (DMCA and EUCD - I'm looking at you nasty spouse abusers here!) The only downside to using this project as our best-case example is that it's BOOORRRRINNNGG!

Don't get me wrong, the work they are doing is of vital importance not just to future generations but even to our current lives. If you look back over the ages (and you're a sad git like me), you'll cry when you realise just how much knowledge we've lost over the years. How many times must we reinvent things because we lose the plans? How often do we have to discover that turmeric rice is good for us (and if we're lucky get a bogus patent in the progress) and that mercury does not make a good after dinner snack? I mean, if blondes forget how to make ice cubes, the rest of us can just show them again, but what if we lost all of the works of Stephen Hawking? Or Isaac Newton? Or heaven forbid, Gary Larson? Think of the lemmings here people!

But just because the work is important, nay, just because the work is utterly vital, that doesn't mean it's not dull. These are old books that few people today have much interest in, and dull examples don't win you any converts.

That's where Neil Gaiman comes in. In both his first book of short stories and the more recent Fragile Things he takes an old familiar character or story and puts a whole new twist on it.

Someone trying to turn Harry Potter into a vampiric house-elf molester just couldn't get away with it. Despite her liberal borrowing (some might even call it downright derivative rubbish), JK Rowling's attack lawyers would be all over them like white on rice and then she'd probably just kill the poor defenseless Dobby in the next book because now he's an inconvenience to further profits.

But thankfully, because Snow White is in the public domain, a scary man like Neil Gaiman can return to the story and tell it from the step mother's perspective. And to be fair, we never really did get to hear her side of the story. Sure, poisoning beautiful young ladies with apples doesn't seem like a nice thing to do, but have you seen the Rammstein video for Sonne? She was a bad girl! So maybe, just maybe, we ought to let the step mother's story be heard. We couldn't have if we didn't have limited time copyright though.

Since Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain (not Baker street as previously thought), we can hear a different version of how he came to meet Watson, and we can find some startling things out about the monarchy that lords over our fair isle. Blue-bloods indeed... more like green, gooey and German I tell you!

These stories may not be the next great works of literature, I can't judge that (hell, I still like books with pictures in them ;)) but they are fun; they take a world you thought you knew and turn it in its head... they tell you that everything is not quite as it seemed through that looking glass and that maybe we should ask a few more questions about these innocent maidens shacking up with seven hard working vertically challenged ore extraction specialists (ok, dwarves).