The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle

Princeton Univ. 2014. 560p. notes. ISBN 9780691161822. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781400851911. LAW
OrangeReviewStarThe Anglo-American tradition is that copyright exists to benefit the public, not the author, but the reverse theory holds sway today. America's first copyright law presumed everything was in the public domain unless a copyright was applied for, and then the item was protected for 14 years, renewable once. Now, copyright automatically exists in every doodle and lasts the author's life plus 75 years. Baldwin (history, Univ. of California at Los Angeles; The Narcissism of Minor Differences) charts how the interests of copyright holders triumphed over the public interest. He maintains that the French are largely responsible, turning into law romanticized 19th-century notions of the lone tortured visionary author atop Mount Parnassus, then imposing those ideas abroad. Thus, lengthy terms and harsh criminal punishments for infringement now reign worldwide. Authors largely don't benefit, but rather the corporations that control the rights. Or distant relatives who use "moral rights" to suppress works—or shake down today's creators. Quite a change for America, where in the 19th century, foreign works couldn't be copyrighted and were freely pirated. Authors such as Charles Dickens and Walter Scott were popular in part because they weren't getting paid.
VERDICT An excellent, scholarly study of what has gone wrong with American copyright law in the last half-century that will contribute to the ongoing debate on reforming the law.
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