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I attended a literary arts workshop today in Wadena, MN. A bunch of us writer folk from several economic development regions got together to discuss the state of writing groups and activities in our communities and come up with ideas on how we can better collaborate and encourage more writing-related activities.

During lunch, we were paired with a person from another region in order to meet someone new and continue networking. If anyone thinks writers are silent, solitary types, that’s not the impression we gave during the workshop or lunch. In fact, it was hard for the facilitators to get us to shut up long enough to continue with our sessions.

During lunch, I was paired with a man from Alexandria who is involved with the production of a radio theater show through Lakes Area Theatre. I asked him what sort of programs they produce and whether they had ever done H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” He said they hadn’t because of copyright and we proceeded to discuss copyright issues. The organization received a cease-and-desist letter from another author’s estate when they planned to create a program from her work. Due to copyright hassles with existing works, Lakes Area Theatre works very hard to encourage people to write scripts for the program.

And that’s when the epiphany struck.

Copyright was originally intended to protect a creator’s work for a limited period of time so that the creator could make an income from that work while continuing to be creative. Copyrighted works were also intended to be inspirational to others. With the extension of copyright, a creative work is protected for 70 years past the death of an individual creator. The copyright can be transferred to whomever the creator wants via a will, but if the creator neglects to choose the new copyright owner, it typically is passed along to the creator’s family. (My family received the copyright to my Grandpa Jens’ paintings when he passed away. I had discussed this issue with him long before he died to see what he wanted to do with the copyright, but he said, “Aww, you’ll all figure that stuff out.”)

Because copyright now lasts so long and many creators (and their families) are careful to strictly control the use of their works, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for other creative people to use existing works to create new creative works. Those who rabidly control their copyrights will even go so far as to try to stop their works from being inspirational material for others, kaboshing works in which the original copyrighted piece isn’t even recognizable. This goes far beyond the intent of the original copyright laws. (There are also copyright holders who would love to do away with fair use, but that’s another issue.)

When the man from Lakes Area Theatre told me the organization was encouraging people to write scripts for them, partially because of copyright, I realized that copyright was still serving its original function but almost in the opposite way of the original intention. Instead of copyrighted works sparking inspiration via the creators’ visions, they are sparking inspiration because other creators are not allowed to use copyrighted works this way without paying fees. Therefore, new creative work continues to be generated. (Which will then be protected, which will spur more creative work and on, and on.)

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