Let’s take a moment to reflect on the state of the public domain, fifteen years after Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act.
Sunday, October 27, marked the fifteen-year anniversary of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA). By extending existing copyright terms for another twenty years, this 1998 law ensures that the public domain in the United States will not expand until January 1, 2019. We at Public Knowledge believe that this extended copyright term is too long, and it certainly should not get any longer.
By delaying the public domain’s growth, the CTEA prevents today’s artists from drawing upon fresh, freely available art and creativity, except for those works which authors have consciously released into the public domain. It also prevents educators from quoting literature by the likes of Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway.
Meanwhile, the CTEA has rewarded an extremely small minority of copyright holders (corporations or descendants of authors) whose works from the 1920s now remain locked up by the government-granted monopolies known as copyrights. The best-known example of this is likely the original Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” which was previously due to enter the public domain in 2003. Instead, the CTEA extended its copyright until 2023. And now with about five years left before more works begin automatically entering the public domain again, the same players who pushed Congress to pass the CTEA are likely to ramp up their efforts for more of the same. Fortunately, at least now more people are paying attention and will be fighting to stop them.
More than that, though, it's time to face the fact that even the terms we had before the CTEA were too long. Copyright scholars of all stripes recognize that long, automatically granted copyright terms are a prime force behind orphan works, whose authors can't be found and which therefore languish in obscurity — all to protect the tiny portion of works commercially exploitable a century or more after their creation. To avoid these problems, we must have balanced copyright, with terms just long enough to provide incentives for creators without degrading what copyright was designed to enrich — our culture.
Image: Website for The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind by James Boyle.