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Fix Copyright for a Creative World

By Virginia Postrel
February 11, 2013 7:00 PM EST

In a parallel universe, President Barack Obama, a progressive Democrat, says the following in his State of the Union address:

Creativity is central to our prosperity and progress. The Constitution recognized this by granting Congress the power of “securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Copyrights give creators a financial incentive to produce new works.

But, as artists from Walt Disney to Jay-Z have demonstrated, new works also build on the past. Locking up creative works for generations hampers the progress copyrights are supposed to encourage. And the retroactive extensions of the past few decades have convinced too many Americans that Washington cares more about corporate interests than about the public good.

I will therefore send a bill to Congress restoring the copyright terms in effect before 1976: 28 years of protection renewable for another 28 years. The bill will also include a requirement that copyrights be registered with the Library of Congress so that we don’t lose track of their owners.

Since the international treaty known as the Berne Convention requires longer terms and prohibits registration, we will work with our treaty partners to reform it as well and, over the long run, to establish an international database that allows anyone in the world to easily determine who owns the copyright of any given work. Just as land deeds and car registrations -- and patent and trademark filings -- make physical and intellectual property more secure and certain, so copyrights deserve similar clear records.

Some will claim that these reforms will hamper artists. But these are the rules that gave us the music of Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Motown. The rules that governed the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wallace Stevens and Zora Neale Huston. The rules that protected the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock. They are the rules that produced “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Trek” and “I Love Lucy.”

Americans don’t need today’s extreme copyrights to be creative. Neither do the citizens of the world. We need sensible protections that balance financial incentives with creative freedom.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own. This is one of 11 suggestions Bloomberg View columnists made for the foreign policy section of Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Read more here.)

To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel at vp@dynamist.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.

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