Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing notes that 98% of all work currently protected by copyright are “orphaned”—protected from indiscriminate use but with no author or estate to uphold the responsibilities of ownership. The result, as The Public Domain spells out, is a sort of 20th century cultural black hole in which practical access to almost everything is now impossible and which black hole is only growing in size as more work becomes orphaned each year. In 2010, for instance, not a single copyrighted work entered the public domain in the U.S. In fact, this won’t happen again until 2019 (that is, unless another copyright extension is made into law).

We all understand that this debate is complex, both legally and financially, but what isn’t discussed so much is just what it means to the public to lose its cultural memory, what this amnesia might mean w/r/t the way we negotiate the cultural present. We lose track of personal memories all the time, of course, but it would be quite another thing to say that most everything that one had ever known would suddenly be lost behind a sort of enforced forgetting. This isn’t what copyright is meant to do, and it presents the question of how a liberated approach to copyright might change our attitudes about culture and cultural production. How might a contrary position—that copyright protection should only be enforced as long as a work has relevant commercial potential, which for the vast majority of cultural stuff could be safely measured in months, not lifetimes—change our regard for the present?

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