ARL Policy Notes
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.

  1. bc-butler reblogged this from arlpolicynotes and added:
    Amen!
  2. arlpolicynotes posted this
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