July 7, 2006
The animation blogosphere is atwitter over the removal of many shorts from YouTube; I imagine many of the ones listed on Digg Drop, which André Coutu reported on last week, are gone.

You'll note that a comment on André's post asks if all the copied cartoons on YouTube constituted piracy, which I thought was a great question: I've been working on a measured response to that in the form of an article for our commentary section, but due to these recent events I'll just jump right in.

Here's the short answer: Yes. It is piracy. And the movie studios are completely within their rights to have those shorts taken down. (Except, of course, for the ones that are actually public domain.)

But it's not that cut and dried. Copyright has always been about striking a balance between what's legal, what's ethical, what's culturually beneficial and what's convenient. Despite the prevailing sentiment that copyright is purely a tool of the big corporations, the truth is that it protects even smaller creators, like we here at fps, the people who write articles for us, and, especially in the case of independents, the people who create the animation we love. It even protects those of you who have your own websites and blogs.

On the other hand, corporations have been abusing copyright for decades, largely by lobbying governments, particularly in the U.S., to keep extending copyright terms. When copyright law was introduced in the United States in the late 18th century, a creator could only hold on to their work for fourteen years, 28 if they renewed. Over time, that has been gradually extended to the point where copyright terms extend to 50 years after the death of a work's creator for individuals, and 75 years after the initial creation for companies. (These figures are from a few years ago; if they've changed, they've gotten worse, not better.)

The result is that the secondary purpose of copyright law—to ensure that works would eventually go into the public domain and become part of the cultural commons—has been eroded. Movie studios have been sitting on various works for decades, which is why the recent announcement that the Popeye shorts would come to DVD were greeted with choruses of "Finally!"

This is the environment that has led to people getting righteous when YouTube complied with the studios' removal requests. Few people can see decent version of Tex Avery's shorts these days (except for those of us who made sure to copy our laserdiscs to DVD as soon as the technology allowed), so of course the fans howl when they're pulled. But we have to be careful here: While it's culturally wrong for the shorts to remain unavailable for so long, legally it's the copyright owner's decision—and who are we to tell them what to do?

It may sound like I'm being wishy-washy, but I come at copyright from multiple perspectives: as a consumer, as a creator—sometimes independent, sometimes freelance, sometimes salaried —and as a publisher. In each of those cases, copyright laws afford me a certain kind of protection, some of which are tied to the same protections corporations enjoy. Copyright, as Access Copyright used to put it, is the right to copy—and that right rests with the creator(s) unless otherwise specified.

We don't like it, but we can't make Warner Bros. release old Looney Tunes any more than we can make an independent animator release his or her early work, and you can't make me release early issues of fps. And while the argument can be made that Warner is being cantankerous for pulling old cartoons from YouTube because they weren't doing anything with them, I would be really cantankerous if someone started making dupes of early fps issues just because I wasn't.

However, as history has taught us, what's legal isn't always synonymous with what's right. That'll be the subject of my next missive.
Comments:
One relative example: I always wonder from time to time how Disney puts up with the public domain issue. I've read a few times of publications or other companies wishing to use some of the hundreds of Disney properties... After all, Disney's top three money-making franchises are Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and more recently the Disney Princess Brand, I believe. Just ponder what would happen if Diz gave up the rights to Mickey, or any other key characters under their wing. (The Winnie the Pooh ownership issue, however, is a whole different argument.)

--aaron b.
Disney puts up with the issue by lobbying to extend copyright. And so far they've succeeded -- it's largely through their efforts that the copyright term has extended to the current limit of of 95 years from date of creation (for corporations), which is why the act that extended the term is referred to as the "Mickey Mouse" extension.

The thing is, things like recognizable characters (e.g., Mickey) actually shade into trademark law, rather than copyright. That's why the Fleischer Superman shorts are all be in the public domain (although they were erroneously taken down by Youtube), while DC has always owned the character himself, and his likeness.
Y'know, Emru, I'm coming around to the position that if you create work and release it to the public, you should be forced to keep it available or accept a royalty from somebody else who keeps it available.

I'm taking this position because we've reached a point where nothing will ever become public domain again. The whole point of public domain was that work should become part of a common culture and feed the creation of new works. If we can't have that, and we can't due to corporate greed, then at least we can demand that the work continue to be part of the common culture.

Without the public domain, corporations will end up destroying culture by not keeping it available. I don't think the world benefits from that.


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