Talking to William Hammerstein – Part I

As the debate will no doubt rage (or stomp its feet) on the subject of copyright review in the coming year, one subject that will assuredly be on the table will be the terms of copyright (i.e. how long ownership can last).  There is a persistent assumption that these terms are somehow the exclusive privilege of large corporations.  As Robert Levine will point out, of course, right now “copyright terms last about ten minutes” because that’s how long it takes for work to be poached on the Internet, but it should also be understood that families and other legacy rights holders have played an important role in preserving the integrity, purpose, and continuity of works for the benefit of generations born long after the creators are gone.  One body of work that has remained relevant and popular are the musicals of Oscar Hammerstein II.

William is the grandson of Oscar II, who gave us some of the most famous musicals in the world, including Show Boat, Oklahoma, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music.  The most renowned of these were of course produced with long-time partner, composer Richard Rogers.  Today, Will Hammerstein is an environmental lawyer, who  sees a link between the stewardship of natural treasures and artistic ones.  Will is also the Executive Director of the Oscar Hammerstein’s Highland Farm, which is a project to turn the home where Oscar wrote most of his work into a museum about the man and the medium.

Will spoke to me via Skype from his home in New York City.  Listen to Part II here.

Theme music by Sandy Davis.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Robert Levine is totally wrong. If copyright lasts ten minutes, that’s a major achievement. In reality, especially for movies, unauthorized copies are available way before authorized copies are available.

    Back to the point though. I think the copyright terms are ridiculously long. But arguing about copyright terms gives copyright a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. What Congress needs to do is entirely repeal copyright entirely, because it is not actually possible to have a working copyright system with the rise of computer networks. A new system for compensation of content authors must be stood up, one that works with the nature of the information age.

  • Thanks for the interview, Dave and Mr. Hammerstein.

    The vast majority of people are in favor of copyright… even though [people] like the commenter above like to scream the loudest and jump up-and-down. After hundreds of years, no-one has come up with a better alternative to promote publication and compensation.
    What ‘M’ and others like [it] don’t seem to realize is that there have always been disruptions, and they’ve always only been bumps in the road. The law is slow to pick up on specifics, but rest assured… it will catch up eventually. Enough to promote a working market.

    • There is no past example of a “bump” as severe as what the information age has done to the very notion of copyright and industries that rely on it. Perhaps things will go on as always, and this is just a [really long] bumpy road in the pro-copyright lobby’s belief that this is some fundamental truth in knowledge and culture protectionism.

      But remember this James: if you get “bumped” hard enough, that causes some permanent damage. Wear a helmet next time.

    • “The vast majority of people are in favor of copyright… ”

      That’s absolutely the case. I suspect it’s even the case for a large percentage of people currently infringing on it through piracy. What’s less clearcut is that there’s the same support for people being able to still profit from the creative work of their grandparents, which is the main issue here. (Almost half of the American public supported the length of copyright terms back in 2003, but that’s quite a long time ago. And I’m not convinced it’s strong support anyway- it’s probably still up for debate).

      But yes, certainly, I’d agree that the vast majority of people believe that the only people profiting from creative works are copyright holders. Despite their propaganda, the Pirate Bay really doesn’t have a lot of public support.

      In the end, I suspect we’re going to see some kind of middle ground being found on all this. Somewhere between the extremes of Falkvinge and David’s views.

      After hundreds of years, no-one has come up with a better alternative to promote publication and compensation.

      It’s not opposed to copyright, but state funding works. I love the BBC. It’s great.

  • Nah, I was being deliberately provocative. I do think your views on copyright term are at the extreme end of the spectrum but that doesn’t de facto invalidate them; my views on the music industry are hardly moderate.

    Your delivery is completely different then Falkvinge anyway; you debate with people rather then at them, which is one of the reasons I comment here and not elsewhere.

    Lowery and Falkvinge, maybe, but not you. Stylewise, you come across as being more from the Levine/Lanier camp. (A compliment. They’re both writers I rate highly).

    • Thank you, Sam. I do appreciate it as I appreciate having folks like you comment here. The truth is I don’t have particularly strong feelings about terms themselves and can easily imagine a rationale for those terms being shorter. That said, I’d hate to see this done for the sake of political victory and as a stepping stone toward abolition. Unfortunately, that’s kind of how these things tend to go. We could roll back copyright to 50 years, and the folks at the EFF and Tecdirt and Google would have a party. Then, what? They’d come to work on Monday and have a new set of goals. Copyright terms are too long? Maybe. But the argument that this stands in the way of new works or new business opportunities is pretty weak in my opinion. Happy New Year!

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