By Erin Bassler
Ever had difficulty navigating the world of copyright laws? You’re not alone.
The definition of copyright is “a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to authors of ‘original works of authorship’. This includes literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and certain other types of creative works. Material not protected by copyright (or otherwise protected) is available for use by anyone without the author’s consent. A copyright holder can prevent others from copying, performing or otherwise using the work without his or her consent.”
It sounds simple, but it’s not.
While copyright laws are meant to protect creators from having their work stolen or reproduced, they come with a lot of problems for the creator, other creators, and the consumer.
The rules of copyright used to be fairly straightforward—an originator would legally own the full rights to their published work for fifty-six years, long enough to make a hefty profit. Afterwards, the creations would join the Public Domain, where they are free for anyone to rearrange and redevelop without bumping any legal heads.
It’s how Peter Jackson got ahold of the world of Middle-Earth, how Pride & Prejudice added an undead factor, and how Disney adapted the myth Hercules into an epic sing-along. To learn from the past in order to build the future, writers, artists and even scientists are encouraged to build off previous work in order to create new culture.
Sadly, Disney was responsible for bringing all that development to a screeching halt.
Despite having a majority of their own work stem from the Public Domain, Disney was terrified of losing their bestselling character, Mickey Mouse™, to the common folk. To keep their paws on his paws, Disney petitioned Congress to extend the terms of copyright in 1998 with the Copyright Term Extension Act—and won. Now, consumers have to wait until the original creator kicks the bucket, as well as an additional 70+ years for the content to be free for use.
Legally, you could be sued for even drawing a picture of Mickey Mouse™ just like I could be sued for not sticking the ™ at the end of his name.
Now, any published art, movies, music, books or articles that were published in the 1970s or later will likely not enter the Public Domain in our lifetime, limiting our creative resources.
But it’s not just a problem when a creator holds on too tightly—it’s a problem when a creator tries to claim more than they’re entitled to.
On January 26, 2016, the Fine Brothers, a popular channel on YouTube that’s well known for its reaction videos, announced their trademarking campaign, React World. The response was not exactly what they were expecting.
Initially, the brothers explained that they wanted to trademark and license their particular format of video. No one would be able to steal their ideas, and copycats would be legally bound to pay for the rights in order to mimic their video style.
Except that in the process, Fine Brothers Entertainment also made a claim to trademark the term “react.” While Benny and Rafi Fine are perhaps the most popular enablers of the genre, they’re not the only YouTubers that make reaction videos, let alone the oldest. People react to movie trailers, baby announcements, marriage proposals, college acceptance letters, you name it—and they love to share.
Numerous videos were being taken down due to copyright-related issues that had never been there before. Social media exploded in controversy—fans unsubscribing by the hundreds, published written and video criticism, and legal action taken against the company for trying to own a genre that was “not theirs to own or police.”
A creator is entitled to their own work, not the field in which their work is submitted. It would be like J.K. Rowling proclaiming that the fantasy genre was her property—“One does not simply walk into Mordor… that’ll be 20 Galleons and 9 Sickles, please.”
When The Fine Brothers finally raised the white flag on February 1, 2016, their channels had lost over 650,000 subscribers, and most of its credibility.
In a public statement, the Fine Brothers apologized for their actions before removing all of their promotional materials, cancelling their project, and releasing their hold on any false claims they may have made.
“We realize we built a system that could easily be used for wrong. We are fixing that. The reality that trademarks like these could be used to theoretically give companies (including ours) the power to police and control online video is a valid concern, and though we can assert our intentions are pure, there’s no way to prove them.”
But even after all that, the backlash still has a ways to go. Videos are still receiving countless “thumbs-downs” and very bitter comments. Last time I checked, they had a cheery #hashtag theme. The Internet is very large and it has a very, very long memory.
On top of everything, even after all the added security and extra restrictions—copyright still doesn’t always protect the creators who play by the rules. Online artwork is constantly being stolen, reshared, and even sold with the caption chopped off like an unwanted limb. Piracy still remains a major player in the criminal world if the millions of streaming sites, illegal downloads, and parodies are anything to go by.
Copyright is an imperfect system. On the surface, protecting creative ownership is a noble cause, but there are too many loopholes and too much restriction in the wrong places. Instead of using takedown notices to remove content from host sites in an continued game of whack-a-mole, why not follow the ill-gotten money back to the source and shut down the entire operation? Instead of leaving unclaimed works to rot in legal limbo, why not release them to a public that will put them to use? Lower the intellectual expiration date back down to a reasonable limit, come down on creators and consumers that are actually making a profit from their “business investments,” and refocus the rulebook so it works for the people, not just the privileged. Copyright doesn’t need to go, but it could do with some serious revision.