Big Content’s Lobbyists Say They Aren’t Going to Try for Another Copyright Extension This Year, But I Wouldn’t Count On It
Earlier this week Ars Technica expressed the hope that Congress won’t pass another extension to the term of copyright in 2018.
Citing public opinion and internet activism, Timothy Lee wrote:
Until the 1970s, copyright terms only lasted for 56 years. But Congress retroactively extended the term of older works to 75 years in 1976. Then on October 27, 1998—just weeks before works from 1923 were scheduled to fall into the public domain—President Bill Clinton signed legislation retroactively extending the term of older works to 95 years, locking up works published in 1923 or later for another 20 years.
Will Congress do the same thing again this year? To find out, we talked to groups on both sides of the nation’s copyright debate—to digital rights advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge and to industry groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. To our surprise, there seemed to be universal agreement that another copyright extension was unlikely to be on the agenda this year.
"We are not aware of any such efforts, and it’s not something we are pursuing," an RIAA spokesman told us when we asked about legislation to retroactively extend copyright terms.
"While copyright term has been a longstanding topic of conversation in policy circles, we are not aware of any legislative proposals to address the issue," the MPAA told us.
Presumably, many of the MPAA’s members would gladly take a longer copyright term if they could get it. For example, Disney’s copyright for the first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, is scheduled to expire in 2024. But the political environment has shifted so much since 1998 that major copyright holders may not even try to extend copyright terms before they start to expire again.
If this does come to pass then 2019 will be the first year since about 1992 that a US copyright expired, and works entered the public domain*.
Given that the term of copyright is still ridiculously overlong and enables many to profit from works they did not create**, this would not be great news so much as news of a "the beatings have stopped" type, but it is still not bad news.
Nevertheless, I am not getting my hopes up.
Between the tax plan, ending net neutrality, and trying to kill Obamacare, this government has engaged in far too many unpopular activities this year for "popular opinion" to be considered a good deterrent.
I’m very skeptical that Disney/Hollywood won’t try to get this administration to do their bidding once more, perhaps by claiming that it somehow protects jobs. That is exactly the argument that was used to raises taxes on the middle class so they could be cut on corporate income. This is obviously a false argument, but that is no impediment to making the argument.
Frankly, the major corporations don’t need another copyright extension to protect their revenue sources; they can use trademark law as a pseudo-copyright to block the use of works in the public domain. That is how the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate maintains control of the Barsoom stories, and this is also the trick that the Conan Doyle estate used to extract a payment from Miramax in 2015.
While that is not a pleasant situation – a work in the public domain should be truly available to the public – this would still be a better option than a copyright extension. The only works that would remain a monopoly would be the works that a corporation would invest a lot of money in defending. That leaves about 99% of works created in a given year joining the public domain.
This is unpleasant but still a palatable solution.
Nevertheless, I am still expecting someone in Congress to tack a copyright extension rider on to the budget, or some other critical bill. It would cost Disney too little, and benefit them too much, to pass up the opportunity.
Or do you think I am wrong?
O O O
P.S. US copyright law is weirder that you might think. Due to a law passed in 1992, works from 1964 onward were granted an automatic copyright renewal. Works published in 1963 or earlier had to have their copyright renewed in their 28th year, and any that didn’t entered the public domain (mostly). Meaning, there are works from before 1964 in the public domain.
P.P.S. The only parties who benefit from an overlong copyright term are the corporations profiting off of a work long after the creators are dead, and the "estates" of dead creators, which are really just more corporations profiting off of a work long after the creators are dead.