Friday, 1 January 2016

US 1978 Copyright Term Extension - the big deal

This blogger's friend, Joren de Wachter, an IP consultant based on Brussels and TEDx presenter (see IP thought crime on YouTube) has pointed me to Duke University's Centre for the Study of the Public Domain who have drawn our attention to the implications of the 1976 Copyright Act in the United States, which extended retroactively from 1978 copyright term from 56 years after creation of the works to 50 years after death of the author (extended to 70 years in 1998 in line with European law) or 75 years (later extended to 95 years) for works made for hire and pre-1978 works).

The Duke University site has a list of some of this blogger's favourite works affected by the decision , including Gunter Grass's The Tin Dum ("Blechtrommel"), Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers or the movies North by Northwest and The Manchurian Candidate. These were all first released in 1959 and copyright protection would expire on 1 January 2016 under the previous law.

There's a clear economic case to made for copyright protection to reward creativity and to provide a financial incentive to produce the works. The publishers of the affected books have certainly benefited from the extension. Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass only died in 2015 and his book, the tin drum, is on the reading list of anyone studying German. His literary estate and heirs will benefit from continued protection of his works and no doubt his publishers are still reaping their investment in the promotion of this work.

There are many other works, however, for which such extended copyright protection is probably too long and the current laws can lead to an uncertain situation in which the owner of the copyright cannot be located and/or innovation is impeded.

This blogger is a fan of a registration system under which copyright would be initially granted for set period, but could be later extended if fees are paid. This would give a balance between ensuring that less significant works enter the public domain earlier than currently possible but allowing copyright holders to decide themselves those works which are of significant benefit to enjoy a longer degree of protection.

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