Recently, I attended a potluck picnic of a bunch of friends, and at one point the conversation turned to the length of time that copyright is in effect for creative product such as novels, TV shows, and movies. It began with one friend telling us about some new Star Trek fan videos that included some actors noted for their Star Trek characters like Walter Koenig who played Chekhov. Paramount Studios, the TV and motion picture company that bought Desilu Productions, the original producing company for the show, had taken legal steps to stop any more fan videos from being produced. Paramount owns the Star Trek franchise, and the copyright, which began with the original series in 1966. Several friends jumped on Paramount for stopping fan creativity and fans using their creativity to “move the Star Trek universe forward.”
Paramount has the right to earn money by selling its product whether it’s a TV show, a movie, or licensing the rights to develop new TV shows based on the characters of an old one they own. They are in the process of developing and producing a new Star Trek TV show with CBS. They have a new Star Trek movie coming out this July. It’s not like they aren’t using their property. Since the original show was copyrighted in 1966 (I think), it’s been only 50 years, and far less from the other shows in the franchise like Star Trek: The Next Generation. The pro-fan fiction friends wanted copyright to end much earlier than it does and for property like the Star Trek franchise to enter the public domain much sooner. They weren’t against the protections that copyright offers, just that those protections last too long, in their view. One fellow suggested that others could use the original work to “build on” with their own creations.
As a writer who owns copyright on my writing, including Perceval’s Secret, I was horrified. I periodically do a search of the internet to make certain that my creative product has not been scavenged and sold to benefit someone else. And by scavenged, I mean sold as someone else’s work, with a different author name, etc. It astonishes me how many people (especially those not involved in producing creative product like writing, composing music, painting, etc.) think that writers, composers, photographers, producers, etc. should not be able to benefit from creating their novels, music, photos, TV shows and movies, etc. for the current copyright period of life plus 50 years. One fellow commented that well then a writer should write more books. Hmmmmm.
Let’s review current copyright law which went into effect in 1978. For works created and copyrighted before January 1, 1978, copyright protection has two terms. The first term is in effect from the date the copyright is secured (by publication or registration) and for 28 years thereafter. In the 28th year, the copyright may be renewed for a second term which has a duration of 47 years. If not renewed, the copyright ends and the work goes into the public domain. Star Trek was created before January 1, 1978, and I suspect Paramount renewed its copyright when it came up for renewal in 1994. Paramount still owns the copyright until 2041. For works created after January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright is the duration of the creator/holder’s life plus 50 years, and the work does not have to be published or registered for the copyright to be in force. There is no renewal. Copyrights can be transferred but revert back to the original owner after 35 years.
Most books are not bestsellers. In fact, I, for example, will be happy to have midlist books that earn me a consistent, steady annual income in royalties. That money is my payment for the years of work I’ve put into my writing when I earned $0, i.e. the last 20+ years. Going forward, one book usually doesn’t earn enough per year to make a huge difference, so writers generally do write more books (as well as other things like articles, essays, book reviews, etc.), each new book adding to the royalty income stream. I have no idea how much a midlist author earns per year on one book, two books, five books, or ten books. And it depends a lot on the market, of course. Some books bomb. Others do better than average. As a writer, I DESERVE that royalty income as payment for my work, and I want that copyright protection to be in force for the legal duration. Taking that copyright away from me, for any period of time, is like robbery.
As a writer, I’ve also done “work for hire” writing, which is probably what Gene Roddenberry was doing when he created the original Star Trek series. This type of writing is done under an employment contract of some sort, and the product produced is owned by the employer, including the copyright. When I do work for hire projects, I am paid a one-time fee for the writing project. This is how I worked with my clients when I was a freelance copywriter. However, newspaper reporters are employees for their newspapers and their job, for which they are paid, is to produce writing. The newspaper owns the copyright. Then there is the freelance writer who sells first serial rights to a magazine for an article or story but retains copyright. There are several sub-copyrights that can be sold in publishing such as audio, digital, print, movie and TV, first serial (for publishing excerpts), and then by geography, such as North American rights, English language rights, foreign rights. (This is a very brief overview of a complicated topic.)
Of course, I suspect that my friends wouldn’t care much about any writing or TV show or movie that didn’t interest them. But Star Trek? They were quite certain that for that, Paramount should relinquish its copyright so that others can develop that universe for free.
What do you think?