2019: The Year the Public Domain Returns to the U.S.

A screenshot from “Safety Last!”, a 1923 film that is now in the public domain in the United States

It’s January 2019 at the time of this writing, and already the news media’s biggest headlines are about the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. In my opinion, it seems that the news for the last few years has been so laser-focused on the seemingly nonstop drama in Washington, D.C. that it has forgotten that there are other things happening in the world. For example, a really big news story slipped right under the news media’s radar when the clock ticked over to January 1st this year. For the first time in 20 years, the copyrights on American works were allowed to expire.

I have talked about copyright and the public domain here on Cat Flag before, but just to review: creative works such as books, paintings, photographs, films, music and sound recordings, video games, etc. are protected by copyright law so that people who put their time and energy into creating these works are able to recoup their expenses and make a living. This gives people an incentive to be creative, and a legal way to stop others from ripping them off by stealing (or “pirating”) their hard work. Anything that isn’t copyrighted is “public domain” and free for anyone to use as they please – things like folktales, classical literature, and historical artworks fall into this category.

For example, the legends surrounding King Arthur are all public domain.

This means that if you wanted to, say, make your own movie about King Arthur with a stylized, modern, urban flair where our legendary king is basically also Robin Hood somehow, well, that’s exactly what Guy Ritchie and Warner Bros. did. And all those original elements that they put into that movie are copyrighted.

The goal of copyright is to encourage creativity and fill the public domain with new ideas, so copyright is, by necessity, temporary. However, the length of time that works are under copyright has changed over time as copyright law has changed. The Copyright Act of 1976 laid the foundations of our modern copyright system. Previously, you had to register your copyright and renew it every few years, but now copyright protection begins automatically when your work is “fixed in a tangible medium”. It also held that works published before 1978 would automatically have their copyright terms extended to 75 years from first publication, except those that were already in the public domain. Furthermore, the law now would differentiate between works copyrighted by a single human being, whose copyrights would expire 50 years after their death, and those owned by corporations, whose copyrights would expire in 75 years.

Then in 1998, with Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act. This law extended everyone’s copyrights by an additional 20 years. Ostensibly, this law was passed to bring U.S. copyright law into harmony with the copyright laws of other countries, but the law’s many critics at the time called it the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” as the Disney corporation’s lobbyists were the ones pushing the hardest for the new law. Before the law was passed the copyrights on the first Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie (1928), would have expired in 2003, and now they won’t expire until 2023. In effect, the law placed a 20-year freeze on new works entering the public domain.

Well, the freeze is over. Any work published in 1923 entered the public domain this year. Well, except for audio recordings, which are covered under a separate law and will remain copyrighted until 2022, though the sheet music for these songs are now public domain. Feel free to dance to the Charleston, America!

This leads to the question of what, exactly, is now in the public domain thanks to this change. It turns out, quite a lot!

Here’s Cecile B. DeMille’s original film The Ten Commandments:

Here’s the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim:

https://archive.org/details/CharlieChaplinThePilgrim1923

Here’s some adventure on the Oregon Trail from the western The Covered Wagon:

The first ever Broadway play by an African-American playwright, The Chip Woman’s Fortune, is also now in the public domain, so you can freely make your own stage production of it, or perhaps turn it into a novelization, or a movie!

The list of books that are now in the public domain includes Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, New Hampshire by Robert Frost, A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton, and even the first two volumes of Winston Churchill’s account of the First World War, The World Crisis. Those with an interest in cooking and historical recipes will be happy to know that Jessie Conrad’s A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House is now public domain as well. Feel free to share its recipes with all your friends!

Pigeons with Carrots

Split the roasted pigeons in halves and lay cut side down in a stone saucepan with half a claret glass of white wine, pepper and salt, with four carrots cut lengthwise, each into eight pieces then cut across.  Add a little meat juice.  Put enough water to just cover the pigeons.  Stew gently for three-quarters of an hour.  Thicken with a little flour and water and serve in the stone saucepan, or a deep dish.

Um…. moving on…

The book that I, personally, am the most excited about entering the public domain in the U.S. is The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. This is the second book featuring Christie’s famed fictional detective, Hercule Poirot. Beginning this year, the successive books in the Poirot series will begin entering the public domain, one by one. Under U.S. law, as affirmed by the courts in the case Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate that involved the copyright status of another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, characters that originate in public domain works are public domain as a result. That means you can make your own works featuring Holmes or Poirot, as long as you don’t use any elements that are specific to those books that are still under copyright.

At least, that’s the case in the United States. In the United Kingdom, Christie’s home country, all of her works will remain copyrighted until 2046. So, I guess if you want your Hercule Poirot video game to be sold across the pond, you will still have to pay royalties to Christie’s estate.

In the coming years, as more copyrights expire and more works enter the public domain, it will be very interesting to see what new and creative inspiration people will take from these works. I look forward to seeing what people come up with.

Having said that, the real test will be what happens to Mickey Mouse, who is slated to enter the public domain in 2023. Disney must have figured it won’t be able to ram another copyright extension act through Congress, so it has trademarked the character. Trademarks identify brands, logos, and other identifiers of corporations, so people can identify the source of their goods. Unlike copyrights, a trademark can theoretically last forever. Will the courts allow Disney to continue “owning” Mickey Mouse? Only time will tell.

Tick, tock, tick, tock!

Behind the Headline: Why is Catalonia Vying for Independence?

Boy, it has been forever since I’ve done one of these, huh?

So, yesterday, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, announced a plan to all but shut down the government of Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain in the northeastern part of the country, and temporarily impose direct rule from Madrid. For his part, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has announced in a speech that his government won’t accept the plan and hinted that they may formally try to break away from Spain. A massive protest flooded the streets of Barcelona, the largest city in Catalonia, with hundreds of thousands of marchers opposed to Rajoy’s proposal, which must be approved by the Spanish Senate to take effect.

These events are in response to a referendum held in Catalonia on October 1, in which 90% of voters supported Catalan independence (though the vote was considered illegal by Spain’s courts and many anti-independence Catalans boycotted the vote). After the referendum passed, Puigdemont and the Catalan government wrote a declaration of independence, but then immediately “suspended” the document, supposedly to allow for negotiations with the Spanish government. Rajoy’s latest moves are in response to Catalan leaders ignoring calls by Spain to clarify their position. Both sides have accused the other of stomping all over democracy and ignoring the rule of law. Catalan protesters have announced that if Spanish authorities try to have Puigdemont arrested, they will use themselves as a human shield to stop them.

Why is this happening? What is driving Catalonia’s independence movement? Why is Spain so adamant on stopping them?

It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

A history of Catalonia (and its relationship to Spain)

Our story begins in 711 AD. Yes, really.

That was the year that Muslim armies from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, they took over almost all of the peninsula, with the exception of a small pocket in the Cantabrian Mountains along the northern coast, where some Christians managed to hold out under the Visigoth leader Pelagius. It was this pocket of Christian resistance that would be the seed from which Spain would grow, as generation after generation fought over the centuries for the Christian reconquista (reconquest) of the peninsula.

However, Catalonia has altogether different roots. In 732, a Muslim invasion of France was defeated at the Battle of Tours by Charles Martel. His grandson, Charlemagne, was one of the greatest conquerors of early medieval Europe, and he wanted to ensure that his new empire was safe from any would-be Muslim threats, so he created a buffer zone along the border known as the Spanish March. It was here that the County of Barcelona was created, and over the centuries its power and influence expanded, thanks in part to Barcelona’s status as an important trading port in the western Mediterranean, and in part to a series of political marriages, wars, and treaties. By the 12th century, Barcelona had become the economic hub of the Crown of Aragon, a medieval federation of Catalonia, some neighboring regions, and eventually, even most of southern Italy.

The official flag of Catalonia, known as the Senyera, is based on the Crown of Aragon’s coat of arms – a gold shield with four red stripes. According to legend, when Count Wilfred the Hairy of Barcelona was wounded in battle, the French king Charles the Bald paid the count a visit to thank him for his bravery. During the meeting, Wilfred’s blood-soaked hands stained his copper shield, creating the red stripes. Today, the Catalan independence movement uses the Estelada, a flag that adds a star to the Senyera to symbolize national freedom and independence.

Of course, as we all know, in the 15th century King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile, creating modern Spain. Having said that, for several centuries, “Spain” was legally not a single country but a collection of autonomous kingdoms that happened to share the same monarch. During these years, Aragon, while unified with the rest of Spain, continued to enjoy a high degree of autonomy with its own separate laws. However, as time wore on, this autonomy eroded as successive Spanish kings demanded more centralization of political power, and eventually king Philip V formally abolished the separate kingdoms and created a unified Spanish nation-state in 1716.

This is a large part of why the relationship between Spain and Catalonia is so complicated. Catalonia was its own separate thing for centuries. It has its own national culture, its own traditions, its own cuisine, its own holidays, and even its own language. In fact, the Catalan language is actually more closely related to the dialects of southern France than it is to Spanish. Yet, at the same time, Catalonia has been a part of Spain for hundreds of years, and numoerous generations have thought of Catalans as fellow Spaniards.

In living memory, however, the real touchy hot-button subject is the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Franco promoted an ideal of Spanish nationalism that emphasized unity and rejected diversity. Spanish national culture was “whatever Franco happened to like” (flamenco dancing, bullfighting, the Roman Catholic Church), and all other traditions were banned and suppressed. Catalonia, which had sided against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was especially targeted. The use of Catalan in public was banned, as were traditional Catalan dances and festivals. This is a part of why the soccer team FC Barcelona came to be so popular; for many Catalans, it was the only legal way to express their national pride and sort-of voice their distaste for the Franco regime.

After Franco died and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution was drawn up that, among other things, allowed the Spanish government to grant various regions of Spain autonomy and self-government. This is why Catalonia is able to elect its own regional government with control of many local affairs. That is, until these latest developments happened.

So, why is Catalonia seeking indepedence now?

In a word, economics.

The Great Recession hit Spain especially hard, and it has suffered from a major unemployment crisis as well as ballooning public debt. Yet Catalonia has, by and large, managed to weather the storm, and it is one of the most well-off parts of Spain, with a robust manufacturing sector and plenty of tourism. Catalonia alone is responsible for 20% of Spain’s GDP.

Madrid has taken full advantage of this, using billions of euros of Catalan tax money to help prop up struggling regions elsewhere in Spain. This is completely natural and rational from the Spanish government’s point of view, and indeed, using resources from better-off parts of a country to help those in worse-off areas is perfectly normal in many countries. Here in the United States, there are many states that depend on money from the federal government to function, but a few, such as New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, and Kansas, actually pay more in federal taxes than they get back in federal spending. I’m certainly not aware of any major secessionist movements in Kansas right now.

The difference is that many Catalans don’t see themselves as Spaniards (thanks to their own national culture that evolved separately) and don’t trust Madrid (due to the decades of repression under Franco). To these Catalans, it is completely unfair for them to be paying for the rest of Spain – they want their taxes to pay for Catalonia’s needs. They feel Spain is an anchor that they are forced to drag, and would be better off going it alone.

Having said that, some economic experts question whether Catalonia really would be better off without Spain. If Catalonia gains its independence, it will need to provide for itself those government services that Madrid currently provides, such as a military, embassies around the world, and the like. About a third of the products Catalonia makes are sold in other parts of Spain, so there is an immediate question regarding trade across the new Spanish-Catalan border. An independent Catalonia would also be outside the European Union, and if it wants to stay in the EU it would have to apply for EU membership. Mind you, being admitted as an EU member requires the unanimous consent of all existing EU members, including Spain. You know, the very country they would have just gained their independence from?

Still, Puigdemont seems adamant in pursuing Catalan independence with zeal and determination, reportedly even over the objections of other leaders in his own political party and government. What will be the outcome of this latest political crisis? Will Catalonia gain its independence or will Spain succeed in stopping this train in its tracks? It looks like we will all find out soon.

Behind the Headline: The UK votes to leave the EU

Brexit image from The Millennium Report

The vote is in: 51.9% of British voters approved leaving the European Union, a vote that has shocked the world and shaken the world’s economy. Already, the value of the pound sterling has fallen, there is talk of thousands of people in the UK losing jobs, and doomsayers predict the European Union falling apart as others decide to follow Britain’s path. In the run-up to the vote, most economic experts, big businesses, and politicians from around the world urged British voters to stay in the EU, with the most notable exception being U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response to the news, British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation, saying he will leave office in October.

So what, exactly, happened here? What happens now? And how will it affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

What is the European Union, and why was Britain a member?

I’ve talked about the European Union on Cat Flag before, so I’ll be brief: The European Union is a unique political entity covering 28 European countries that functions in some ways like an international organization made up of sovereign nations (members have their own militaries, embassies, passports, seats at the United Nations, and Olympic teams), and in other ways like a national government whose members are federal states (the European Union can pass laws that can override the laws of its own members, citizens of its members are also citizens of the EU, and people and goods can pass freely across its members’ borders with each other while the EU controls immigration and trade with the outside world). Many, but not all, EU members have agreed to use the euro as their common currency and to eliminate all border checkpoints between each other so people can cross from country to country the same way Americans can drive or fly from state to state.

The European Union evolved gradually over the decades into its modern form, originating in post-WWII trade and economic treaties that were designed to try to make a third devastating war in Europe impossible. It wasn’t even called “The European Union” until the 1990s; prior to that, it had been called the “European Communities”. Two simultaneous trends shaped the organization at this time – first, members gave the Union more and more power, and second, the Union admitted more and more members.

It was in this context that the United Kingdom joined in 1973, at a time when the European Communities were still a primarily economic and trade union that looked very different from today’s EU. It was primarily for economic reasons that the British joined; they were struggling economically, and hoped free trade with Europe could provide a big boost. This fact has long played a huge role in Britain’s relationship to the EU. To the British, EU membership was always about what was in it for them, and they never fully committed to complete integration into Europe as other members had. The British refused to adopt the euro, refused to throw open their borders to the same extreme degree as the rest of the Union, and repeatedly got into fights with the EU leadership and other EU members over the EU’s powers. Public approval of the EU has consistently been lower in the UK than most other member countries.

Still, there have always been pro-EU voices in Britain as well. While the vote to leave was close overall, 62% of Scottish voters had cast their ballots in favor of keeping the UK in the EU. British farmers have long been dependent on agricultural subsidies from the EU, and poverty-stricken parts of the UK such as Cornwall have been receiving economic investments from the EU for years. More than a million British citizens live, work, or own property in Europe. The most popular personality on YouTube, Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, is a Swedish national who lives in the UK and is able to do so because of the EU’s freedom-of-movement laws. The “Brexit”, as the British voters’ decision to leave has been called in the media, has put all of this in possible jeopardy. Already, many British voices are calling for a do-over because of these facts.

Why did the UK vote to leave?

That’s an easy question to ask, but a hard one to answer. The most common answer the political analysts seem to turn to is immigration. Even though the British had managed to get opt-outs of some of the EU’s open-border policies, at the end of the day, while it remained a part of the EU the British government had to give up control of its immigration policy to the Union’s decision-makers in Brussels. Furthermore, any person who was an EU citizen could freely visit and move to the British Isles. Thanks to the UK’s welfare laws, once somebody got in the UK, he or she could count on government-subsidized housing, taxpayer-funded health care, and government aid to pay for living expenses. Immigration has been a perennial issue in British politics for decades, with some arguing that the British Isles just aren’t big enough and don’t have enough jobs or resources to support too many immigrants, and some of the more extreme anti-immigration voices have been accused by critics of being racist or xenophobic. When you consider the haphazard way the European Union responded to the Syrian refugee crisis, it comes as no surprise that British voters may have felt the UK would be better off deciding for itself what its immigration policy is.

On the other hand, the European Union was in a crisis long before there was any talk of Syrian refugees in the news. Remember when the European Union faced a massive economic emergency in the wake of the Greek debt crisis? Or how Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus also faced financial crises of their own at the same time? The economies of many of those countries are still weak, with unemployment reaching 24% in Greece, 20% in Spain, and 15% in Croatia as of February. Since EU members are required to send part of their tax revenue to the European Union, and 30% of the EU’s budget is spent on those regions that have lower incomes and weaker economies, British taxpayers have effectively been seeing their pounds spent on these other countries over the years.

Then there’s this analysis in the New Yorker, which looks at the demographic breakdowns of British voters who cast ballots for “Leave the EU” or “Remain in the EU”, and finds that the “Remain” voters tended to be well-educated, young, and well-off while working-class voters generally tended to vote “Leave”. The author of that piece suspects that working-class anger at Britain’s politicians, who have long been known to be more pro-EU than the general British public, helped tip the scales. I admit, though, that I am not an expert on British politics, so make of that as you will.

Is the UK the first country to leave the EU?

No.

In 1982, Greenland, a large arctic island with a population of just over 55,000 living under Danish rule just northeast of Canada, voted to leave the federation, largely due to the island’s inhabitants wanting control of Greenland’s fishing regulations rather than being forced to abide by Brussels’s fishing rules. In 1985, the Greenland Treaty formally ended the island’s membership, and since then the island has been largely self-governing. As Denmark is still part of the EU, Greenlanders are EU citizens, but EU law does not apply there.

So what happens now?

Exit sign image by Alton

In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, and one of the things that it did was create a mechanism by which members could leave. First, a member country would submit some sort of notification to the EU that it intended to leave, and then the EU would negotiate an agreement with that country on what the future relationship of that country to the EU would be after it leaves. For example, a country might want to leave the EU but still have free trade with it, still have a working relationship with it on military matters and security policy, and so on.

There is a two-year deadline from the date of notification to reach an agreement, unless the EU and the country in question should agree to extend that deadline. If no agreement is reached, the country’s membership just up and terminates on the deadline date, and the EU treats the country just like any other foreign country. A country that leaves the EU can rejoin later, but would not receive any special treatment in its application.

In response to the vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron had initially said he would leave it to his successor to formally notify the EU, thus delaying the withdrawal process. The idea behind this would be to give Britain more time to negotiate an exit that would allow the UK to retain access to trade with Europe. However, EU leaders have told the British government to start the process right away and not delay, going so far as to say that “notification” need not be a formal written document; as one official told Reuters, “He can just say it.”

Why so hasty? Well, the United Kingdom, a country that is home to more than 65 million people as well as one of the world’s most important financial centers, has a much bigger impact on the EU than Greenland. People are already speculating in the media about which country might be tempted to leave next, and there are a number of upcoming national elections in several EU members that are facing political shake-ups in the wake of the euro crisis and Syrian refugee crisis. Better to rip the band-aid off quickly, the thinking goes, so the economy and diplomatic relations can re-stabilize and find a “new normal”. If the exit process is delayed too much, it could make things even shakier for far longer.

How does this affect me?

Obviously, if there’s one thing markets don’t like, it’s uncertainty. We’re already starting to feel the economic shocks from the vote, but I expect that will probably stabilize once we have a clearer picture of what is going to happen in the coming years between Britain and Europe. Still, not great news for anybody’s 401(k) plans.

Obviously, the vote also complicates diplomatic relations between the UK and the United States, and likely will for some time, though I doubt our two countries’ long-standing alliance will be diminished. We are both members of NATO, after all.

But what about you, dear Cat Flagger, sitting here reading this? Well, it looks like a vacation to the British Isles just got cheaper, as a weaker pound makes it easier for Americans to afford British prices. This article from BBC News lists several more ways Americans will be directly affected by the Brexit, from the possibility that British investors might want to get into the American real estate market to the strong likelihood that popular TV shows made in Britain such as Doctor Who and Game of Thrones will take a huge hit in the wallet.

In the longer term, I expect international travel in Europe to become more complicated. Anyone travelling from Britain to anywhere else in Europe, or vice-versa, will likely have to abide by new rules and controls, and may even need to get visas. If other countries follow Britain’s lead, that’s even more border controls that weren’t there before a traveler would have to deal with. Trade will also likely be affected in the long-term, as the United States had been in the middle of negotiating a huge trade agreement with the EU that now looks like it may not happen. Expect the cost of goods imported from Europe to go up if the companies that ship them over here have to pay more in tariffs.

For now, we can only wait and see, as it will likely be a while – possibly months – before we get a clearer picture of what a post-Brexit Europe will look like. However, I am optimistic that once we have started to get that clearer picture, things will start to improve. I believe that people are adaptable, and are very good at finding the right path once they know what map it is they are looking at.

Reasons to be Optimistic about 2016

You have to admit, the news has been very depressing lately. In less than a month, we’ve seen terrorist attacks and multiple mass shootings, plus another controversial police shooting sparking even more protests. Western nations are getting more and more involved in a very complicated Middle Eastern conflict, tensions with Russia are still very high, and my home state of California is still in severe drought conditions, a fact that has caused major losses for our vital agriculture industry.

Laying it all out like that paints a pretty bleak picture, doesn’t it? What it’s easy to forget about shocking headlines, though, is that they are news precisely because they are shocking. Many of the everyday triumphs that make our world a better place don’t get headlines because they happen so gradually that they don’t get noticed. Well, today I’ve decided to celebrate the easily-forgotten ways that our world is actually getting better, in order to show that there are actually many reasons to be optimistic about the new year!

Crime is on the decline

Police Tape image by Tex Texin

In spite of Gallup polls showing that Americans think crime is on the rise and society is getting more dangerous, the actual crime statistics are showing the exact opposite. Violent crime in the United States has been declining almost every year since 1992. Property crime has recently been at its lowest since the 1960s. We are all actually far safer from crime today than we were 20 years ago.

Here’s a table breaking down the crime rates of all the major crimes since 1960. As you can see, the rate of homicide in 2014 was the lowest ever recorded.

The crazy part is that nobody actually knows why fewer and fewer crimes are being committed now than in the past. There are a few theories floating around, though. One suggests that crime spiked in the 1980s due to the rise of crack cocaine and the gang wars that raged over controlling the cocaine trade; according to this theory, as later generations rejected crack due to its horrific side-effects, crimes linked to the drug declined as well. Another theory holds that technology has proven to be the best weapon against crime, as more people carry credit or debit cards and fewer carry cash, and newer, more sophisticated security systems make it harder to break into houses or cars. Still others have proposed that the aging of the baby boomer generation has played a role in the decline, or that police crackdowns have been more effective.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to know that our streets are getting safer.

…and so is poverty

Slum image by Jonathan McIntosh

This isn’t to say poverty isn’t still a major problem. According to the World Bank, 702.1 million people worldwide are living without enough food, safe drinking water, shelter, or access to health care, sanitation, or education.

Yet poverty around the world has been declining every generation since 1820. In 1990, the United Nations pledged to cut the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015. Not only did they succeed, they beat their own deadline by five years, passing that threshold in 2010. The World Bank now predicts that the rate of extreme poverty worldwide will be less than 10% of the total human population, for the first time ever in all of human history.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the lion’s share of this decline is taking place in Asia and Latin America, where economic development has been booming for years. People in these parts of the world have more jobs, infrastructure is being built, and a middle class is growing. In Africa, meanwhile, the poverty rate may be declining, but at a much lower rate. More than 40% of sub-Saharan Africans are still classified as living in “absolute poverty”.

Meanwhile, poverty in the United States actually rose during the Great Recession, with a current rate of around 15%. While this is much lower than the poverty rate of the early 1960s, it is still higher than normal for us. So it looks like there is still work to be done.

We are actually living in one of the most peaceful times in human history

Peace sign image from Wikipedia

In spite of the raging conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and other hot spots around the globe, by any statistical measure peace is winning out over war globally.

There have technically been no wars between countries since 2008, when Russia invaded the neighboring country of Georgia. That war only lasted five days and ended with a negotiated agreement between the two countries. You could argue that the War in the Ukraine is also a war between countries, though technically it is a civil war between the Ukrainian government and rebel troops that Russia vocally insists (in spite of all evidence to the contrary) are not just Russian soldiers wearing different uniforms.

All of the rest of the current ongoing wars are civil wars or wars against terrorist groups, and while both of these can be horrific and brutal, in general they tend to cause fewer casualties than wars between nations. Indeed, deaths as a result of armed conflict have been in decline since the 1980s, and genocides and other forms of mass killings are far rarer than they used to be. It seems that people are just not as willing as they used to be to shoot or bomb each other.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. Three reasons the world isn’t so bad after all. Here’s hoping all of you have a peaceful holiday season and an optimistic 2016!

Copyright and the Courts: Four Recent Headlines (and What they Mean)

The world-famous Copyright logo, image from the Wikimedia Commons

You have probably seen recent headlines about Volkswagen lying to consumers and emissions regulators about how fuel-efficient and eco-friendly their diesel engines actually are. The cars were installed with special software in their on-board computers that would detect when the vehicle was being tested, and then feed false data to the device testing the car’s emissions. Worse still, Volkswagen had been doing this since 2009! Why did it take so long for anyone to catch on?

According to Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the answer is copyright law.

The software in most newer cars (as well as many other machines) is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This means that the programming that tells the computers in the machine what to do is the intellectual property of the manufacturer. Not only that, but if that software is encrypted to hide the software’s code from any peering eyes – and, thanks to the risk of industrial espionage and piracy, the code on these cars is almost always encrypted – the DMCA makes it illegal to break the encryption.

This is good for the manufacturer and bad for spies and pirates. However, the Volkswagen scandal shows where having a single, blanket ban can actually harm the public good. For years, nobody was willing to risk looking at the code inside Volkswagen’s cars, even though many advocacy groups and even U.S. government officials were suspicious of the company’s claims that its diesel engines were some of the most environmentally friendly in the world. If anyone tried to look at the code in Volkswagen’s cars, they would be breaking the law. It wasn’t until a West Virginia laboratory decided to go ahead and risk it that somebody finally had a look at that code and made the discovery.

This is just one example of how copyright law directly affects each and every one of us in our day-to-day lives. It is expected that soon Volkswagen will be forced to issue a recall of all affected models, and if that happens, anyone who drives a diesel Volkswagen would need to find out how they are affected and what their options are.

This is just one of several headlines in the news recently about copyright law. In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I tend to follow this stuff pretty closely. Here are a few more copyright-related headlines in the past few weeks you might have missed:

The “Happy Birthday” song isn’t copyrighted after all!

Birthday Cake image from Normanack

Remember when I told you about how Warner Music Group owned the copyright to the “Happy Birthday” song?

Well, that is no longer the case. In fact, according to a recent federal court ruling, it was never legally the case.

As you may recall, the tune for “Happy Birthday to You” was taken from “Good Morning to You”, a song written by two sisters in 1893. That tune has been in the public domain for years. However, the lyrics for “Happy Birthday to You” were copyrighted in 1935. Or so everyone thought.

According to the court ruling, the 1935 copyright registration was for a piano arrangement, not the lyrics themselves. Furthermore, the paperwork was filed incorrectly, and on top of that, there is plenty of proof that the song existed long before the copyright registration in 1935, with versions published as early as 1901. Lastly, there is no evidence that the original sisters who wrote “Good Morning to You” ever wrote the “Happy Birthday” variant, and even if they had, there is no evidence that they gave the copyright to the company that ultimately filed that 1935 registration that Warner Music Group depends on to assert ownership of the song.

Thus, the court ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” has been in the public domain for all of these years. Now, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are demanding Warner Music Group refund all of the millions of dollars in royalties they have been collecting from the song for decades.

So, now that I can do this without fear of being sued…

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday dear friends,

Happy Birthday to You!

Cars can be copyrighted

Batmobile photo by Jennifer Graylock

Let me tell you a tale of a humble auto mechanic who wanted to make some money off of somebody else’s brand recognition. Mark Towle of Temecula, California modified cars so that they looked like the Batmobile. DC Comics, makers of the Batman comics and owners of all intellectual property associated with the character, sued Towle.

Towle argued that you can’t copyright a vehicle because it is a useful object. He also argued that he was basing his cars off of the Batman TV shows and movies, so DC Comics couldn’t sue him. On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Towle had no idea what he was talking about.

In the court’s ruling, they found that the Batmobile is a “distinct character” that was worthy of copyright protection. The fact that it is a car is irrelevant. Also irrelevant, according to the courts, is the fact that Towle based his vehicles on the movies and TV shows. DC Comics still owns the “underlying” copyrights to anything Batman-related. They didn’t give up those copyrights when authorizing film adaptations of their comics; indeed, the contracts DC signed specifically ensure that DC still owns the copyrights to the characters in the films.

I suppose this is very bad news to anyone who is hoping to design and build an invisible jet.

The curious case of the “monkey selfie”

The famous monkey selfie

When photographer David Slater left a camera out beside a troop of macaques in Indonesia in 2011, one of the female macaques picked the device up and started playing with it. It ended up taking several photographs, including the famous “monkey selfie” above.

Slater assumed that he still held the copyright to the photographs; it was his camera, after all. However, this claim was soon disputed by several websites, including Wikipedia. Eventually, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that the photograph was not Slater’s creation, it was the macaque’s creation, and “To qualify as a work of ‘authorship’ a work must be created by a human being. Works that do not satisfy this requirement are not copyrightable.”

That would have been the end of it, except on Wednesday a new wrinkle was added to this tale. PETA filed a lawsuit claiming that the macaque should be legally recognized as the ‘author’ of the photographs and that the copyrights belong to her. They even filed the lawsuit under the monkey’s name.

For his part, Slater told the Washington Post “PETA are deluded in this stunt,” and New York University law professor Chris Sprigman told Slate “The fact is, copyright’s not there to reward people for their labor—it’s to incentivize people to create new books or poems.” He adds that a macaque has no real incentive to create anything.

Still, the PETA lawsuit brings up some interesting ideas, according to MSNBC’s Christopher Buccafusco: “If a computer programmer writes computer code that creates an artificial intelligence capable of writing music, who owns the copyright in the resulting song: the programmer, the A.I., both, or neither?”

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, my latest “blogging about copyright” fix. What can I say? My interests are what they are. I hope you all enjoyed, at least.