Provocative title, eh? I expect many people to instinctively react as angrily to this as I do to the empty clause "intellectual property is property". However, the clause "copyright is censorship" is actually true.
What is copyright? It is a law passed by and enforced by governments that places restrictions on what you can say in public or what you can publish. It is a limitation on the freedom of expression.
In what way is that not censorship?
(I intend that as a rhetorical question. However, if you want to answer it, please try to come up with something better than "copyright is good, but censorship is bad." As I argued before, saying "intellectual property is property" is at best an oversimplification that obscures the issues, and doesn't really make sense when examined. "Copyright is censorship" is much more straightforward, and is pretty plainly true by the definition of the terms.)
Does this mean that I think that we should do away with all copyright in a free society? No, and I'll talk more about that in a moment. But in framing the debate, I think it very important that we keep in mind the simple fact that copyright represents a limit on the freedom of expression.
Before that, though, I want to briefly address one other issue. Many see copyright as a moral right. In this view, authors have the moral right, above and beyond any economic need, to control the use and distribution of their own creations. And I can understand this, and see the arguments for it. I wrote it, it is the fruit of my labors, I should be able to have some sort of control over what happens with it. However, this "moral right" is fundamentally at odds with the rights of freedom of expression, which are much more basic and important to a free society. My moral right to control what I've written is trumped by your moral right to freedom of expression.
In my view, the only role that copyright serves in a free society is the role that is outlined in the US Constitution: an economic incentive to promote the progress of the useful arts and sciences. In short, we as a society value what writers, artists, and performers create, and we want to ensure that they are able to keep creating it. For the good of society, we want the best of them to be able to make a living doing what they are doing, because without that we would not have the fruits of their labors. As such, we agree to sacrifice some limited portion of our freedom of expression in order to provide an incentive for creators to create.
This is the key point of the debate which is obfuscated by those who present copyright as a moral right, by those who talk about "intellectual property" in terms of private property rights. It is a sacrifice of our freedom of expression that we agree to because we value the results of that sacrifice.
When placed in those terms, it becomes much more clear that copyright should be as long as needed in order to provide the incentive for creators to create what we value, but absolutely no longer. Freedom of expression is fundamental to the society we live in, and we should not be limiting it without a damn good reason.
Current terms on copyright are absurd, and recent trends suggest that they will only be getting longer. Writers do not need to maintain exclusive rights for their writings for their entire life, plus another 50-75 years after their death, in order to make a living writing! The only possible justification for that kind of copyright term is if you view copyright as a moral right. That view is not supported by the US Constitution, and as I've argued, is at odds with the values of a free society.
How long is "long enough?" That's not an easy question. Some will point to long-term royalties and argue that as long as they could be making more money, they should be able to. That's an argument for lifetime copyrights. I would argue back: why should you be able to make money forever on your writing? Is it really worth sacrificing freedom of expression for that long for your own personal gain? Hell, I'd love it if every student I had in a class had to pay me some fraction of their paycheck for the rest of their lives, on the basis that my class was part of the education that allowed them to get the jobs that they have. But that's obviously absurd. So too, would I argue, it is absurd for creators to claim that they should forever have the right to get royalties on work that they have written.
Copyright needs to be long enough for writers to be able to make a reasonable living at it. Exactly how long "long enough" is probably depends on the medium. For software, if you haven't made your money back in 10 (or even 3) years, you almost certainly never will. For a novel, it is certainly longer. I would think that a blanket 15-year copyright term, renewable once for a second 15-year term, should easily be more than sufficient for everybody who makes a living right now creating to be able to keep creating. Sure, Disney won't be able to make as much re-releasing and re-selling their DVDs for all time... but in what way is allowing them to continue reaping profits from old works promoting literature, providing an incentive for the further production of creative works?
You can dicker forever about the specific terms that are proper. But we will forever be stuck with absurdly long copyright terms as long as we view copy"right" as a right. If we wake up to the fact that copyright is a sacrifice of our freedom of expression that we agree to because we value the rewards of that sacrifice, the debate would be refocused in a much more reasonable direction. Just how much must we sacrifice to get what we value?