The Growing Lifespan of a US Copyright and Its New Horizons

Copyrights are yet another intellectual property concept that have been met with increasing controversy in recent years. And in contrast to patents, copyrights are something that have undergone objectively marked changes in both the scope and duration of their protections. Initially the concept of copyright was in the same spirit as patents, a temporary protection to allow inventors, writers, and artists to recoup their efforts and expenses, but gradually copyrights have been made into a concept not unlike the trademark- a lifetime intellectual property. In this article I will briefly cover the progression of copyright “life-spans” over the years and show their expansion.

The first copyright act, known by its full long-winded handle “An Act for the encrouragement of learning, by securing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned“, was ratified by Congress in 1790 and served as a foundation for modern copyright law. The initial act was very simple by today’s standards, its word count alone is quite telling- the law comprised 1,262 words, whereas the Copyright Act of 1976, arguably one of the most significant of such acts in the 20th century, totaled more than 35,000.

So what did this scant bill cover, and how would we characterize it in modernity? The original bill, as described by its name, was limited to maps, charts, and books. Copyright terms were initially 14 years of exclusive printing rights, with the option to renew an additional 14 years within 6 months of the expiration of the first term. The cost per filing was 60c with an additional 60c for every work filed; or about $8-9 USD in 2016. To put this in perspective, the cost of filing for copyright today is between $35 and 55 dollars, and with an attorney’s aid this can run into the gamut of thousands of dollars. This has not changed greatly in its own right however, as the nature of copyrights themselves has become more complex.

Subsequently this law was expanded in 1831 to include “musical compositions, prints, cuts, etchings, [and] engravings” and the terms extended to 28 years plus a 14 year renewal if this was done within 6 months prior to the end of the first term. At the time of its enactment this term was greater than the life expectancy of the average American by a couple years (compare 39-40 and 42 years), setting a precedent for the next two centuries, with lifespans growing at a rate significantly slower than that of the American copyright until they were tied to an author’s life altogether.

Subsequently the law of 1909 expanded renewal terms to 28 years bringing copyright terms to a total of 56 years. Between the two laws however, something else occurred; in 1886 the Berne Convention was created, calling for international standards to prevent the republishing of works that had to be registered prior to its passage. The moment a work was “fixed” (completed in some form), it received copyright under international protection. This prevented many international publishers from seizing the works of authors in foreign countries, though its enforcement had never been proactive until the advent of modern wireless communications.

This law profoundly affected the shaping of further copyright law in the states and abroad, and to date only a dozen states are non-signatory, including (but not limited to) Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Mozambique, Turkmenistan, and Uganda. Unfortunately because of their lack of protection for authors from other countries, authors from these countries do not have the full protections abroad themselves.

I will cover the Berne Conference in greater detail in another post, however here I mention it because it played an important role in US copyrights as the 1971 “Paris Text” extension of Berne provided for 50 years of copyright following the publishing of a work. The US’s 1976 Copyright Act followed this upward trend but would change copyright law dramatically; with its passage, copyright became based on the life of the author plus 50 years, substantially raising the total term to what would easily exceed 100 years of copyright protection. The one liberty granted by the 1976 act was the formalization of Fair Use, which had long been held as a tenant of Common Law but was not codified and had largely existed through the precedent of the courts.

Since that time copyright terms have been extended to the life of the author plus 70 years due to the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, and further provisions have added years to those copyrights made prior to these acts.

A graph of copyright terms in history relative to life expectancy, showing an increasing trend of intellectual property rights going across generations rather than a large part of a single lifetime.

That said, one argument of the current copyright system is that it benefits artists for their entire lives and provides security to their descendants, and there is certainly no disputing that fact. However, what has changed significantly is the nature of the copyright system; the very values it reflects have been altered to render intellectual property as something of an estate property, rather than entering the public knowledge within its own time. While copyrights are an undeniable part of American history and world markets, their application has extended to resemble that of trademarks rather than as works with limits to their exclusivity. What that means is largely up to lawmakers and society, but given the current trend, while the means to obtain information and works has vastly expanded in the last 250 yhear, the public information commons has shrunk in this regard, and what that means economically for society on the whole is something I intend to explore further in future posts.

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