Free Maria Callas!

World renowned operatic soprano Maria Callas, under contract to EMI Records since 1952, is now beginning to shed her cash-cow straitjacket and enter the public domain --- our domain. Yesterday her first EMI recording - a test of "Non mi dir" from "Don Giovanni" - became the shared property of the citizens of the European Union. It's still the property of EMI in the United States, though. (See the New York Times Story on Yahoo). Callas, who cashed her last royalty check before she died in 1977, has since become the property through which EMI takes in as much as five percent of its annual corporate earnings. (I use the word "earnings" in the loose commercial sense).

At this point, it seems silly to argue that extended copyright protection for her recordings is fulfilling the original intent of copyright law, which is to encourage the distribution of creative works. It appears to me quite the opposite - EMI uses its ownership of Callas' rights to stifle any distribution that does not enhance their corporate profits and steers its resources into protecting and enhancing the marketability of fifty year old creations at the expense of fostering new creative work. Copyright, intended to protect the artist's ability to reap the rewards of appreciation of her work, is siezed and harnessed to the service of capital investors, the least creative group you could imagine.

It is those investors, through their good friends and golfing buddies in congress, that have succeeded in extending copyright protection for creative works from the original seventeen years to as much as one hundred years after the death of the artist. These rights can be bought and sold on the market and benefit only publishers and heirs. They provide no benefit to the public and should never have been enacted by a body sworn to serve the public.

As it now stands, European artists and publishers will be free to re-release, re-interpret, revise, alter, incorporate, enhance and distribute any recording more than fifty years old. Anyone who attempts to share any of that creative effort and public property with the citizens of the free United States will be subject to felony prosecution. How different this is than the rhapsodizing of Thomas Jefferson on the free nature of human creative output:

"That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation keeps this Copywrite FAQ archived for your reference. The Jefferson quote is from an inspiring essay by EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow

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