Tag Archives: berne convention

Copyright Term Extension and the Public Domain

It’s Copyright Week, a series of actions and discussions supporting key principles that should guide copyright policy. Every day this week, various groups are taking on different elements of the law, and addressing what’s at stake, and what we need to do to make sure that copyright promotes creativity and innovation! Today’s topic is “Building and Defending a Robust Public Domain: The public domain is our cultural commons and a public trust. Copyright policy should seek to promote, and not diminish, this crucial resource.”

The current copyright term in the United States goes well beyond the international standard of life of the author plus fifty years and is now set at life of the author plus seventy years, or ninety-five years for corporate works. This term is unacceptably long and does significant damage to the public domain, depriving the public of a storehouse of raw materials from which individuals can draw from to learn and create new ideas or works.

Each year, Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain does a roundup of everything that could have entered the public domain if the term prior to the 1976 act, which was set at twenty-eight years plus another twenty-eight years if renewed. The term has been changed twice since then, once by the 1976 Copyright Act which set the term at life of the author plus fifty years, then again in 1998 to the current term.

The list of works that failed to enter into the public domain as a result of these two changes to the copyright term is always an impressive one. This year’s highlights include works like T.H. White’s The Once in Future King, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; or Michael Bond’s, A Bear Called Paddington. These works will go into the public domain in 2054. Notably, because of the Copyright Term Extension Act, the public domain has essentially been frozen; works under copyright at the date of implementation of the act in 1998 retained their copyright. The public domain will not see any new works due to expired copyrights until 2019.

The United States’ copyright term is unacceptably long and does not represent the international standard. Most countries in the world adhere to the Berne Convention standard of life of the author plus fifty years. In fact, where copyright term exceeds this international standard, there have been calls to reduce the term.

Many stakeholders, including the Library Copyright Alliance, called for a reduction of copyright term in submissions for the EU Copyright Consultation. The draft report on the Evaluation of the EU Copyright Directive was recently released and “Calls on the Commission to harmonise the term of protection of copyright to a duration that does not exceed the current international standards set out in the Berne Convention.”  If accepted, harmonization of copyright term would actually result in a reduction of term for many countries to life plus fifty years.

Reduction of copyright term makes good policy sense as long terms restrict access to knowledge and exacerbate the problem of orphan works. Furthermore, the economic evidence does not justify the current copyright term. In fact, the UK-commissioned independent review by Ian Hargreaves found:

Economic evidence is clear that the likely deadweight loss to the economy exceeds any additional incentivising effect which might result from the extension of copyright term beyond its present levels. This is doubly clear for retrospective extension to copyright term, given the impossibility of incentivising the creation of already existing works, or work from artists already dead. Despite this, there are frequent proposals to increase term . . . The UK Government assessment found it to be economically detrimental. An international study found term extension to have no impact on output.

Such lengthy copyright terms make little sense, particularly in light of today’s digital environment. Works are often published on the Internet, resulting in increasingly ephemeral content. Such content may have little to no economic value to the copyright owner, yet still remains under copyright protection until seventy years after the author has died. Policymakers should carefully consider the economic evidence and rationale before extending copyright terms and diminishing the public domain.

Copyright Term Myths and Facts

The written testimony of four of the five witnesses speaking at the July 15, 2014 House Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing on Moral Rights, Termination Rights, Resale Royalty and Copyright Term, address the issue of copyright term. Notably, none of these witnesses suggest that the current term be extended further and Professor of Law Michael Carroll argues that the current term of protection is too long. Although the other witnesses did not propose extension of copyright, it should be noted that Rick Carnes, President of the Songwriters Guild of America, asserts that the current copyright term in the United States is appropriate and should not be shortened. Although he devotes only a single paragraph to the issue of copyright term, his written testimony nonetheless contains statements that are misleading or untrue.

Myth 1: The current copyright term represents the international standard.
Mr. Carnes’ written testimony asserts that “suggestions that the United States should break with the rest of the world to reduce the current term of copyright protection (designed specifically to allow creators to address the economic welfare of their families for a time period limited basically to the lives of their grandchildren) in order to stimulate ‘faster growth of the public domain’ should be rejected outright.”

Fact: The copyright term in the United States extends well beyond the Berne Convention’s standard and beyond the term of protection in the majority of countries.
Many countries’ copyright terms are set by the international agreements to which they are bound. The Berne Convention sets the minimum copyright term as the life of the author plus fifty years. The current term of protection in the United States is set at a period of the life of the author plus an additional seventy years. For corporate works or “works for hire,” the period of protection is set at ninety-five years. These terms far exceed what is required by international law.

Reducing the copyright term to the Berne standard would not “break with the rest of the world” as suggested by Mr. Carnes. The vast majority of countries use the Berne standard of life plus fifty years; there are almost twice as many countries with a period of protection shorter than the current term in the United States than there are countries with a period of life plus seventy years or greater.

Myth 2: The U.S. Copyright Office considers the current copyright term as proper.
Mr. Carnes’ written testimony asserts that the “U.S. Copyright Office, Congress and the United States Supreme Court have considered this issue on numerous occasions and determined that the current term of copyright protection established under Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution is not only proper, but serves the dual purpose of supporting the marketplace of ideas by encouraging professional creativity and bolstering the U.S. economy and balance of trade as well.”

Fact: The U.S. Copyright Office has questioned the value of a lengthy copyright term.
As noted in the LCA statement, Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante has suggested that the current copyright term in the United States may not be beneficial. Ms. Pallante noted in a 2013 speech:

The benefits of a lengthy term are meaningless if the current owner of the work cannot be identified or cannot be located. Often times, this is complicated by the fact that the current owner is not the author or even the author’s children or grandchildren. As the Copyright Office recognized in one of its key revision studies of the 1950s, it seems questionable whether copyright term should be extended to benefit remote heirs or assignees, “long after the purpose of the protection has been achieved.”

The Copyright Office has clearly expressed its concerns regarding copyright terms extending well beyond the life of the author and Mr. Carnes’ assertion that the Copyright Office has determined that a period of life plus seventy years is appropriate is simply untrue.

Further, in recognition of the harms that the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act has caused, Ms. Pallante has proposed the reintroduction of formalities for the last twenty years of protection.

Myth 3: The Supreme Court has determined the current copyright term is proper.
Mr. Carnes also asserts that the Supreme Court has endorsed the present copyright term as proper, a misreading of Eldred v. Ashcroft.

Fact: The Supreme Court never addressed the question of whether a period of protection of life plus seventy years was appropriate. The Court only upheld the power of Congress to set the term and extend the term retroactively.
The majority opinion in Eldred, while upholding the Copyright Term Extension Act, never addressed the propriety or benefits of the extension itself. Instead, the court addressed “the authority the Constitution assigns to Congress to prescribe the duration of copyrights.” As Justice Stevens’ dissent further points out, the question of “whether the extraordinary length of the grants authorized by the 1998 Act are invalid because they are the functional equivalent of perpetual copyrights is a question that need not be answered in this case because the question presented by the certiorari petition merely challenges Congress’ power to extend retroactively the terms of existing copyrights.”

The Court, by a 7-2 margin, interpreted the term “limited Times” as meaning “confined within certain bounds, “restrained,” or “circumscribed” and found that extending the copyright term by twenty years did not exceed this prescription. The majority then noted that on the question of whether the extension was a “rational exercise of legislative authority conferred by the Copyright Clause … we defer substantially to Congress.” The Court went on to state that the act “reflects judgments of a kind Congress typically makes, judgments we cannot dismiss as outside the Legislature’s domain.” Justice Stevens’ dissent notes that, “Fairly read, the Court has stated that congress’ actions under the Copyright/Patent Clause are, for all intent and purposes, judicially unreviewable.”

Notably, the Court states that in finding that the extension was a rational exercise of authority, “we are not at liberty to second-guess congressional determinations and policy judgments of this order, however debatable or arguably unwise they may be.” The majority never decides whether the extension to the present term of life plus seventy is appropriate and could, arguably, be interpreted as suggesting that the extension might be unwise.

While neither the majority nor Justice Steven’s dissent address the appropriateness of the copyright term extension, Justice Breyer’s dissent vigorously opposes the extension as violating the Constitutional rationale of the intellectual property system:

The economic effect of this 20-year extension—the longest blanket extension since the Nation’s founding—is to make the copyright term not limited, but virtually perpetual. Its primary legal effect is to grant the extended term not to authors, but their heirs, estates or corporate successors. And most importantly, its practical effect is not to promote, but to inhibit, the progress of “Science”—by which word the Framers meant learning or knowledge.