Nothing New Under the Sun

It’s Copyright Week, a series of activities and discussions supporting key principles that should guide copyright policy. Every day this week, various groups are taking on different elements of the law, addressing what’s at stake and what we need to do to make sure that copyright promotes creativity and innovation. Today’s topic is “Building and Defending a Robust Public Domain: The public domain is our cultural commons and a public trust. Copyright policy should seek to promote, and not diminish, this crucial resource.”

*Today’s post is brought to you by guest blogger Caile Morris, ARL Law and Policy Fellow*

In support of today’s theme, Jonathan Band and Caile Morris have created a document, entitled “Nothing New Under the Sun” providing examples of famous creators throughout the history of art who have built their works on existing works. The purpose of the document is to demonstrate the importance of copyright limitations to the creative process.

Proponents of strong copyright protection stress the significance of an author’s contribution to the artistic and economic value of a work. In this vision, creativity starts with an author’s spark of genius and is realized through the artist’s talent and hard work.

To be sure, great works reflect their authors’ genius, talent, and hard work. But authors do not create in a vacuum. The raw material for their creativity is existing works. Artists borrow themes, styles, structures, tropes, and phrases from works that inspire them. And if copyright overprotects existing works—if it restricts authors’ ability to build on the creative output of authors who came before them—it will be more difficult for authors to create.

Unfortunately, copyright owners and policymakers often undervalue the importance of this use of source material. They focus on rights, but not on the critical limitations to those rights that enable creativity to flourish. These limitations include: the idea/expression dichotomy and the related doctrines of merger and scenes a faire; fair use; and copyright term, which results in works entering the public domain. The failure to recognize how essential limitations are to new creative expression results in bad policy, such as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (adding 20 years to the copyright term) or the absence of mandatory exceptions and limitations in free trade agreement.

Hopefully, these examples of great works derived from earlier works will remind copyright owners and policymakers of the importance of copyright limitations and exceptions to the creation of new works.