Will Congress extend copyright again?

by Walter Olson on October 27, 2013

“15 years ago this Sunday, President Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which retroactively extended copyright protection. As a result, the great creative output of the 20th century, from Superman to ‘Gone With the Wind’ to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ were locked down for an extra 20 years.” Expect a push for yet another extension — but this time online critics will have plenty of time to mobilize on behalf of the broader creative interest in adaptive reuse. [Timothy Lee, Washington Post]

{ 10 comments }

1 great unknown 10.27.13 at 12:01 pm

Simple answer: the side with the most money will win. I.e., the copyright owners.

2 DensityDuck 10.27.13 at 11:45 pm

Clearly the world’s creativity is stifled by the fact that Superman is still copyrighted. Why, entire generations of artists have died on the vine, unable to give free rein to their expression and ability, because they have to make up their own character instead of just saying “Superman is popular, so I’ll make him the hero of my story because otherwise nobody would read it”.

3 Hugo S. Cunningham 10.28.13 at 1:28 pm

Continuing in the spirit of DD’s post above–

Clearly we have to extend the copyright of Superman indefinitely. If Superman’s creator had thought that he would only get the measely 28 years copyright plus 28 renewable that the law promised at the time, he would never have created Superman, and we would all be poorer.

And why stop with Superman? Surely descendants of William Shakespeare should get a cut every time someone touches on a theme once mentioned in a Shakespeare play. And how about ideas from the Bible? Surely we could create work for unemployed law-school graduates tracking down deserving descendants of ancient rabbis.

On a more serious note, I am concerned less about high-visibility cartoon characters (and bans on simple copying), than on the millions of forgotten books with expired or expiring copyright in libraries, now digitalized on-line for easy access by enterprising copyright trolls. Just about anyone writing something new could face a lawsuit due to some similarity with an unknown work. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

4 DensityDuck 10.28.13 at 2:22 pm

“Clearly we have to extend the copyright of Superman indefinitely.”

Land titles don’t disappear at some arbitrary date. They go on forever; they can be sold, inherited, transferred, and so on.

“(something about how land is for reals not like fake ideas)” What is a land title but the idea that a particular person can decide what happens on a particular location? That idea (and the definition of the location, which is another idea) are as much of an illusion, as much of a fiction, as the idea of Superman. If you’re saying “physical is real because I can pick it up” then we don’t need land titles, because what you’re saying is that you only own what you can hold.

“Well, we pay taxes on land.” Sure, and people ought to pay taxes on coprights and licenses and patents. Maybe they’ll decide that the income from those rights is worth less than the taxes they pay, and let them lapse.

“I am concerned less about high-visibility cartoon characters (and bans on simple copying), than on the millions of forgotten books with expired or expiring copyright in libraries, now digitalized on-line for easy access by enterprising copyright trolls.”

If I move onto vacant land, build a house, install services, improve the land, pay the necessary taxes and duties, and so on, then that land is mine. Maybe a few years later someone shows up and claims to be the actual owner, and I point to the Doctrine of Adverse Possession and tell him to buzz off.

5 rxc 10.28.13 at 7:31 pm

@DensityDuck

Well, first of all, the constitution says that copyright and patents should be issued for limited amounts of time, in order to encourage writers and inventors to be productive. So, “forever” is unconstitutional, but the Congress seems to be saying that any number less than infinity is a “limited amount of time”.

OTOH, I don’t understand why someone who invents a machine that creates cheap, clean energy, or a drug that cures a deadly disease is only allowed to benefit from 20 years of patent protection, but someone who draws a picture of a mouse is guaranteed protection forever. Can you explain this distinction? And don’t give me that stuff about struggling artists – there are lots of struggling scientists and engineers out there.

6 DensityDuck 10.28.13 at 10:57 pm

“the constitution says that copyright and patents should be issued for limited amounts of time”

There are twenty-seven reasons why that isn’t as persuasive as you think it is.

“I don’t understand why someone who invents a machine that creates cheap, clean energy, or a drug that cures a deadly disease is only allowed to benefit from 20 years of patent protection, but someone who draws a picture of a mouse is guaranteed protection forever. Can you explain this distinction”

Why do you assume I support limited terms on patents?

7 TexJudge 10.31.13 at 7:10 pm

I am waiting to hear from Abraham Lincoln’s great great great grandchildren suing for royalties for each and every use of the Gettysburg Address. There should be one simple rule for all copyrights, patents, and right of celebrity: life of the creator plus 25 years and that’s it.

8 Hugo S. Cunningham 11.01.13 at 10:44 am

@TJ

(1) We hear plenty from the estate of Martin Luther King on why his immortal speech should be hemmed in with litigation. But many of those on the other end of the political spectrum might not be aggrieved by that.

(2) I don’t understand why you prefer life plus 25 years to the former 28 years plus renewable for 28 years. Why should the family of someone killed a month after publishing a brilliant work be treated so much worse than the family of someone who lives a long life after publishing a brilliant work?

@DD–

please give us some of your 27 reasons why the founders didn’t mean what they said when they put “limited” in the copyright exception to the First Amendment.

9 Hugo S. Cunningham 11.01.13 at 10:53 am

@DD
Land titles vs. copyight.
If you use land, you are preventing anyone else from using it. If you read a book, you are not preventing anyone else from reading it.

You do raise some interesting points about
(1) renewal fees to encourage renunciation of copyrights of ignored works. Some favoring cutbacks in current copyright law have also suggested this.
(2) “Adverse possession” of forgotten works–
The underlying principles of land law and copyright law are too different to make this legal analogy viable. Congress would have to step in and clarify such a principle, if they wished.

10 peter 11.01.13 at 3:59 pm

Will Congress extend copyright again?

Well if they don’t, how are they going to get those large campaign contributions?

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