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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?


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.

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Andrew Gilmartin January 12, 2018 um 4:40 pm

The illustration needs a credit.

Disgusting Dude January 12, 2018 um 4:58 pm

Frank Frazetta wraparound cover for the SFBC edition of GODS OF MARS/WARLORD OF MARS.

Nate Hoffelder January 12, 2018 um 5:04 pm

Thanks! I couldn’t find a credit, but I will add it.

Mackay Bell January 12, 2018 um 8:22 pm

Not so simple to argue that long copyrights only benefit corporations or estates of dead writers. Now that the longer copyright has been inshrined into law, older writers have the option of transferring some or all of the rights to their works for much hirer payments during their own lifetime.

So a writer who wrote a popular work in their 30’s, but failed to catch fire with other writing since, has the option in their 80’s to transfer the copyright or some parts of it in exchange for front money to help their retirement. Corporations pay artists for their rights, and the more valuable those rights are to corporations, the more corporations can pay. The famous writers who got screwed worst (and ended up dying in poverty) are those who sold all their rights cheap or who lost their rights due to the short copyright laws of the past.

Moreover, why shouldn’t an author’s estate (their children usually) benefit from the value of the work they created. Nobody is arguing that land owned by a person shouldn’t be passed on to their children. Or material items, or cash in the bank. Why is it that wealth created by an artist should be handed over quickly. (Wealth that was taxed throughout the years like all other income.)

Yes, it’s nice there are great stories in the public domain. There are more than enough for anyone looking for stuff to read or adapt. And yes, there should eventually be some limit on copyright but I don’t see the argument that it should be 50 years rather than 100. Nothing is stopping people from writing their own fantasy stories while they wait for Game of Thrones to pass into public domain. I’m not a big fan of this copyright should be like free beer argument.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) January 13, 2018 um 11:16 am

A lot of people forget that authors might have families/children to support and for some reason don’t think copyright should be passed down even though other valuable "property" is passed down. Public domain is highly overrated. Individuals can make a work public domain anytime they want. It should be left to the owners of the works to decide.

gbm January 13, 2018 um 10:42 am

Yes I have no doubt that President Trump after all the "Love, well wishes and support" he has received from the "Big Content" companies just can not wait to sign a copyright extension bill into law.

Net neutrality is an issue that needs to be decided by Congress(i.e. law) not by an Agency acting outside of its jurisdiction.

Mackay Bell January 13, 2018 um 9:55 pm

"Net neutrality is an issue that needs to be decided by Congress(i.e. law) not by an Agency acting outside of its jurisdiction."

Google, Facebook and Twitter getting so involved in politics (shadow banning, censorship, etc.) has pretty much screwed the pooch on net neutrality for all time. It’s pretty transparent they are only on one side and their power is the biggest issue. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, they’re behavior should be scary to anyone in favor of free speech and net neutrality was a big give to them.

[Download] Blogs for Self-Publishers, January 6 – 12, 2018 | Free eBooks PDF January 14, 2018 um 3:10 am

[…] Hoffelder on The Digital ReaderBig Content’s Lobbyists Say They Aren’t Going to Try for Another Copyright Extension This Year, …“Earlier this week Ars Technica expressed the hope that Congress won’t pass another extension to […]

Andrew January 15, 2018 um 8:29 am

I agree Mackey – why shouldn’t I be allowed to pass on my assets to my daughter? Especially now that with eBooks and print on demand, no book is ever out of print. Admittedly I’m not selling like Rowling or Tolkien, but a lot Tolkien’s books sold after he died (I bought all my copies after 1973). If by some fluke I start to sell like Bradbury or Asimov, I would like my heirs to reap the benefits of it and not someone else or god forbid some big media outfit.

Maybe one of the reasons its not on anyone’s radar is because they don’t really want it to be extended. If the owners of "big" properties can effective protect their rights through trademark, letting more content flow to the public domain gives them a chance to pick off some of the 99% of intellectual property that isn’t protected by other means. In a world searching for content, trolling the rolls of unprotected work is a free source of material. Just a thought.

Nate Hoffelder January 15, 2018 um 9:48 am

Because copyright was invented for the benefit of society, not creators. Will extending copyright beyond the death of the creator encourage them to make more works after they are dead?

No, it won’t.

And anyway, the majority of books lose most of their market value after only a couple decades, so you are arguing for society to pay a high price by denying the public the use of the 99% of works that have no market value but might have some cultural value.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) January 15, 2018 um 12:15 pm

It doesn’t matter WHY copyright was originally done. What matters is the reality of how it is implemented. It can benefit and encourage creators if they not only get benefit during their life, but can pass that on to their children. I know many families who set up trusts and other entities to benefit their children. They may even do things like buy property so that there is a value that is passed on in a certain way. The public good is highly overrated–cultural or otherwise. Hard work should pay off for the creator–and the rights to it should be in their hands and that of their heirs. If an author wishes to make something public domain, he/she can do so. If they wish that benefit to be passed on to their heirs, that should be protected (almost all other property is. Intellectual property should be as well.)

Nate Hoffelder January 15, 2018 um 1:38 pm

I think it does matter because copyright imposes a burden on the public. It stops them from exercising all of their property rights over something they bought, namely that they cannot copy and distribute a work. I know that hardly anyone talks about the impact on the public, but it does exist.

If you want to argue in favor of the restrictions imposed on the public then you need to come up with a good justification. And frankly, wanting people to profit of off that which they did not create is not good enough – not when that also includes corporations.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) January 15, 2018 um 2:47 pm

The argument isn’t good enough for YOU. It is good enough for ME. I see no undue burden on the public. Not all goods bought by the public can be resold–they wear out, they become useless due to better technology and so on. Some goods are plain hoarded when they might do good elsewhere, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to come and take that Mercedes in the driveway that isn’t being used often enough that Child 1 didn’t pay for and maybe doesn’t deserve.

The "public" doesn’t deserve the undying loyalty or use of something just as you argue that the person holding copyright doesn’t deserve "forever" control. It’s the same argument in reverse. I believe the copyright should stay with the creator for as long as possible and should definitely include heirs. And the rights do exist such that any creator who disagrees can grant the public "rights." But if you take away the copyright or change it too much, you have taken away the choice. Since there is an opt out, it isn’t as though the public is denied anything IF THE CREATOR so chooses to make it public domain. And it should be the creator’s choice. There’s no moral obligation on either side–the public isn’t some sort of nebulous "greater good" and neither is the creator. So it boils down to a tug of war where the copyright has to be generous enough to benefit the creator to create. I think discussions of public good often devalue the value of hard work and also create a kind of entitle world view as if the public is somehow this great being deserving of great things for doing nothing other than existing.

Will Entrekin January 15, 2018 um 12:52 pm

I’m on the opposite side of nearly everyone here, it seems. As a creator, I’d love to see all my work pass into public domain on my own passing, and indeed have made such arrangements. I wouldn’t want a corporate further profiting from my ideas, and any progeny . . . well, I’d be more happy to pass on assets than ideas. Art and ideas and stories — those are all intellectual property, and further, unless the children of the creators had some hand in the actual creation, I fail to see why they should profit from them — nevermind corporations.

So far as creators' estates go, I’ve frequently wondered how Hemingway would have felt about the fact that his estate now licenses apparel and sunglasses and such — especially because the sunglasses aren’t really very good.

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