Why does the United States have copyright laws?
Although the official purpose of U.S. copyright law is to “stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good,” Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975), lawmakers justify the need for copyright laws with a variety of reasons.
Lawmaker’s primary modern rationale for strong copyright laws is that total control over a creative work is the only way to guarantee that a creator will make money from his or her creative work. This argument is much different from what the framers of the Constitution intended copyright to be used for. They intended, first and foremost, to create a way that the public could benefit from the creative works of the authors. To them, creators making more money off of their works was seen as a necessary consequence of copyright laws, rather than the intended purpose.
Below is a list of the common justifications for copyright laws:
(1) They prevent other people from passing another’s work off as their own.
Imagine an author who’s just published a novel only to find that someone else has published the same material, only with a different author credited. Not only would the copied work take away the original author’s public recognition as the person who wrote the novel, but it would also result in a loss of money if consumers end up buying the novel with the plagiarist’s name on the cover. Thus, copyright law ensures that people can’t copy someone else’s work or make changes to it without getting permission and/or compensating the author. In addition, federal copyright registration forms require authorship of a creative work to be represented accurately. Copyright laws offer creators a legal basis to stop any potential plagiarists.
(2) They help ensure the creator of a work received continued compensation for his work if that compensation is due.
Completing a work isn’t always the end for an author. Once it’s released and distributed, the author may be due mandatory royalty payments established by the Copyright Act. The distribution of royalties is an especially important concern in the music industry where publishers, musicians, and their record labels are entitled to share royalties from radio and online streaming music play.
(3) They help ensure the creator of a work is recognized and compensated when that work is distributed or added to.
Often, creative work doesn’t begin and end with one person. An author may also find his or her work subject to having additional work being done on it. For example, imagine a screenwriter who’s written an original screenplay that’s become a successful film. This screenwriter may rightly think he’s entitled to additional pay if the studio makes a sequel using the same characters and plot elements from the original movie. Copyright law ensures that the original author has some rights should another party attempt to capitalize on his or her original work.
(4) They prevent others from cheapening the original work.
Imagine a novelist who has written a series of books, each starring the same character. Now, imagine how that author would feel if other authors started writing books about the same character without her permission. Such an influx of derivative works would take away potential payment for the original author and dilute the stature of the original work, regardless of quality.
If an imitation book using the same character is better, then a reader may read more imitation books by the same author rather than those of the original author. Conversely, if the imitation books are not as well-received, it may ward people away from seeking out the original books. Copyright law makes sure that there’s a degree of distance between an original work and its derivatives, thus forcing imitators to create works that are similar, but not exact.
Whether these are good or faulty justifications really depends on who you ask. Many critics argue that copyright laws are obsolete and shouldn’t exist at all. At the same time, others persuasively argue that copyright laws should be stronger and even more all-inclusive than they are now.
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