Intellectual property and economic prosperity: Friends or foes? — Mark Schultz and Adam Mossoff: “Looking at the bigger picture, the broad sweep of economic history indicates that when it comes to economic prosperity and innovation, the U.S. and a few other nations have been doing something right for the past two centuries. The U.S. and Great Britain led the world into unprecedented prosperity and development through the Industrial Revolution, and the U.S. remains responsible for a vast amount of the innovation and creativity driving global prosperity – from the world’s most successful creative industries to smartphones to life-saving drugs.”

Behind the Best Pictures From Ferguson, With Getty Photographer Scott Olson — Olson, who was briefly arrested while covering the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, talks to New York Magazine about some of the popular and powerful photographs he has so far captured.

How Social Media Silences Debate — The New York Times points to a study that finds that people are less likely to express dissent on issues online than they are in person, contrary to what some had predicted.

Meet The Publisher Who Ditched Amazon And Is Selling More Books Than Ever — “In a turn of events that might offer some solace to other publishers, White recently announced that EDC has not only survived the leap into the unknown but just had its best year ever in net revenues. July sales were up 28% over the same month last year, and first-quarter revenues came in 20% higher than 2013’s numbers.”

How do writers find their voices? — Interesting preliminary results from a survey of writers. “One particularly startling finding has been that many writers are unable to ‘see’ the faces of their protagonists. The main character often registers as a blank – or, in one case, pixelated like a censored photograph.”

Last week, the US Copyright Office released the third edition of its Copyright Compendium. This edition was long awaited – the second edition was released in 1984. The Copyright Compendium details internal regulations concerning how the Copyright Office determines whether an application can be registered or not. In the US, works are protected by copyright the moment they are fixed in a tangible format, however, registration does provide certain benefits. It is required before a civil lawsuit for infringement is filed, for example.

Almost immediately, a number of news outlets zeroed in on one sentence within the 1,222 pages of the Compendium. “The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants,” says the Compendium. This includes, “A photograph taken by a monkey.” This led to what the internet does best: a viral story about nothing of particular consequence.

The Internet took this sentence as a reference to a certain monkey photograph. To recap: in 2011, a British photographer, David Slater, traveled to Indonesia to photograph black macaques. As he was there, one female macaque grabbed his camera and happened to trigger the camera, taking a series of photos. Upon retrieving the camera, Slater found that several of the photos were quite remarkable and published them, leading to a fair amount of fame.

One of the photos was uploaded to Wikipedia without Slater’s permission. Slater requested removal of the photo, but Wikipedia editors refused, coming to the factual conclusion that the macaque, not Slater, was the sole author of the photograph, thus placing it in the public domain.

The internet exploded with a wealth of discussion about monkey selfies and copyright. Some of it was even worth reading.

Just as things began to calm down, the US Copyright Office announced the third edition of the Copyright Compendium, containing its reference to a photograph taken by a monkey. This led to the most recent burst of news, some of it suggesting that “the government” has “settled” the issue.

Comprehending the Compendium

This is not so for a number of reasons.

First, even if the Copyright Compendium is making a definitive statement about the copyrightability (or not) of the monkey selfie, such a statement is not binding as law. The Compendium itself points this out, saying, “The policies and practices set forth in the Compendium do not in themselves have the force and effect of law and are not binding upon the Register of Copyrights or U.S. Copyright Office staff.”  It should also be noted that a decision by the Register of Copyrights to deny a copyright registration is not dispositive of the ultimate question of copyrightability.1

Second, the statement that “The Office will not register works produced by … animals” is not novel nor surprising. But to say that this settles the question of this particular photograph, as many stories in the past week seem to suggest, begs the question that the monkey is the sole author of the photo.

Third, there is no reason why this question would be answered by US law. Copyrightability is most likely “determined by the law of the state with ‘the most significant relationship’ to the property and the parties”,2 which would clearly not be the US under the facts here: Slater is British, and the photo was taken in Indonesia.

Authorship and photographs

But let’s pretend US law would apply.

The Copyright Act has little to say about authorship. 17 USC § 102(a) says that “Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression”, and § 201 says, “Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work”, but these terms – “works of authorship” and “author” are not defined anywhere within the Act.

The Supreme Court, however, has defined “author,” and it has done so, coincidentally, in a decision establishing that photographs can be protected by copyright in the first instance. In Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, the Court said that an “author” is defined as “he to whom anything owes its origin; originator; maker.”3 Over a century later, the Court would expand on this idea of the author as originator. “The sine qua non of copyright is originality. To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author. Original, as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.”4

So authorship requires two things: absence of copying and a modicum of creativity.

With this in mind, there are at least three possibilities concerning the authorship of this photo: 1) The monkey is the sole author, 2) Slater is the sole author, or 3) the monkey and Slater are joint authors.

We can quickly dismiss the last possibility. Joint authorship requires, in part, that “each of the authors prepared his or her contribution with the knowledge and intention that it would be merged with the contributions of other authors as ‘inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.’”5 The claim that a monkey could do such a thing is even more extraordinary than a claim that animals have knowledge or intent in the first place.

In the case of the monkey as author, the sole act involved is the pushing of the button that triggered the camera and resulted in the shot. This act is certainly necessary to the creation of the photo, but I am not convinced that it is sufficient to establish the monkey as an author. The monkey possesses no knowledge of the nature of the camera, nor knows that pushing the button would result in the creation of a photograph. While copyright law is silent on what, if any, knowledge or intent is required for authorship, surely there must be some level needed to distinguish what the monkey did here from any other force of nature or deus ex machina that could cause the creation of a photograph. The intuition is that there is something specifically human required under copyright law for authorship.

Slater, on the other hand, did everything but push the button. He chose the location, camera, film, and time of day. He set it all up with the intention to create photographs. He processed and developed the resulting photos. The photos would not exist but for these conscious acts.

Courts have found similar acts sufficient for copyrightability. The Southern District Court of New York said the following in 1968 when it was confronted with alleged copying of the Zapruder Film by Life Magazine:

Any photograph reflects “the personal influence of the author, and no two will be absolutely alike”, to use the words of Judge Learned Hand.

The Zapruder pictures in fact have many elements of creativity. Among other things, Zapruder selected the kind of camera (movies, not snapshots), the kind of film (color), the kind of lens (telephoto), the area in which the pictures were to be taken, the time they were to be taken, and (after testing several sites) the spot on which the camera would be operated.6

So it would seem to me under this definition that Slater would be considered the author of the photographs.

I do think it’s interesting to note that the division between those who think the monkey is the author of the photo and those who think Slater is the author generally tracks the division between copyright skeptics and copyright proponents. On the one hand are those who have devalued creativity to the point where they think all it involves is the push of a button – even a monkey can do it. So, in that case, why do we even need copyright protection?

On the other hand are those who still recognize some value in human authorship, who think that creativity does not just spring forth independent of human effort, who understand that human effort does not emerge spontaneously but responds to motivation, and that one of the most just and dignified forms of motivation comes in the form of property acquired through creative productive labor.


Updated August 28, 2014 to correct photographer’s name

 

Footnotes

  1. In fact, the Copyright Act expressly allows for a civil infringement suit to be brought in cases where registration is refused. 17 USC § 411(a). []
  2. Itar-Tass Russian News Agency v. Russian Kurier, Inc., 153 F. 3d 82, 90 (2nd Cir. 1998). The court here was looking at the question of ownership, which is distinct from copyrightability, but I believe the analysis is the same. []
  3. 111 US 53, 58 (1884). []
  4. Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 US 340, 345 (1991). []
  5. H.R.Rep. No. 1476, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 120 (1976). []
  6. 293 F. Supp. 130, 143 (SDNY 1968). []

Will Indie Film Survive? — Scott Timberg: “One of the casualties of our current cultural situation is the erosion of the middle — the middle class, the midlist author, the middlebrow, and the mid-budget film. Independent film, with its interest in boundary pushing and risk-taking, may not seem to belong in that company, but it’s vulnerable to all the same forces.”

The Copyright Office Releases Public Draft of Compendium III — The US Copyright Office this week released its long anticipated new version of the Copyright Compendium, a detailed and comprehensive guide for examiners, as well as the general public, concerning copyright registration. At over 1200 pages, it may not be the best bedtime read, but it should prove invaluable as a reference.

Copyright Review Process Will Continue Into 2015; Education and Circumvention Will Be Next Issues Examined — With just a few weeks remaining before Congress returns from recess, BNA’s Tamlin Bason sat down with Representative Goodlatte to discuss the ongoing copyright review process and what we can expect in the upcoming months.

Why Don’t Today’s Hits Reflect the Times — Interesting article from Billboard. “Why don’t today’s top 40 acts have anything to say? Donovan laments that ‘[The] artists of 1960s and ’70s were much more socially conscious of the feelings and mood of the nation than many of today’s artists.’ Zapoleon adds, ‘Outside of [the] standard themes of love, sex, party and everyday minor social happenings in life, there just aren’t a lot of songs that are relevant to challenges people are facing today, or that talk about contemporary major events in America or the world.'”

Delaware becomes first state to give executors broad digital assets access — The law would allow an estate access to a decedent’s online accounts. Interestingly, the article notes that tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo oppose the law.

Why Exactly Is There a ‘Jarhead 2’? Hollywood’s Secret-Sequel Economy — Why make a sequel to a movie like Jarhead? It’s still playing big where it matters. The numbers make sense. The EVP’s team looks at DVD rentals, iTunes downloads, streaming numbers, TV distribution, and international markets. When asked of his intel-gathering methods, Ross is transparent: “I got Google.” Online chatter is a vital metric, too. Ross could produce a wartime movie that doesn’t infringe on the legacy of Jarhead, but slapping it with a stagnant IP gives it automatic legs. “It does some marketing for you. You come to it with a built-in consumer. You go on Facebook and people are constantly having dialogue about it,” Ross says.

The Free and the Antifree — A thought-provoking article from n+1 that asserts there is an emerging “antifree” movement that serves as a counter and critique to the “free culture” position.

Special announcement: If you’re a recent law school grad in or interested in DC and copyright, the Copyright Alliance and the Copyright Office are both hiring. Info on the Copyright Alliance legal fellow position here; info on the Copyright Office Barbara A. Ringer Copyright Honors Program here.

The Internet’s Original Sin — Spoiler alert: it’s advertising. A fascinating read that details why the reliance on ad-based business models may be destroying the internet. Ethan Zuckerman points to four downsides to this model: it encourages surveillance, reduces the production of thoughtful content, results in centralization of control, and causes negatives like filter bubbles and echo chambers.

Harper’s Publisher Standing Firm in His Defense of Print and Paywall — “His thesis is built on three pillars. The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.”

Reading Literature on Screen: A Price for Convenience? — “In most respects, there was no significant difference between the Kindle readers and the paper readers: the emotional measures were roughly the same, and both groups of readers responded almost equally to questions dealing with the setting of the story, the characters and other plot details. But, the Kindle readers scored significantly lower on questions about when events in the story occurred. They also performed almost twice as poorly when asked to arrange 14 plot points in the correct sequence.”

Warner Bros. Wins Appeal Over Fictional Technology in ‘Dark Knight Rises’ — Though not copyright, an interesting IP case involving the developer of a product suing the Batman studio for including in the film a product that used the same name. Spoiler alert: things did not end well for the developer. Said the Seventh Circuit, “Trademark law protects the source-denoting function of words used in conjunction with goods and services in the marketplace, not the words themselves.”

The Cult of Sharing — “None of the users of the new profit-driven services are under any delusion that they are transacting with others—the term sharing economy even highlights this fact. What’s crucial to realize is that proponents of ‘sharing’ are reinventing our understanding of economic relations between individuals so that they no longer imply individualism, greed or self-interest. Instead, we’re led to believe that commerce conducted on their platforms is ultimately about generosity, helpfulness, community-building, and love.

Is Spotify Killing Music? — “British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has compared YouTube to Big Brother. ‘Rather than a huge boot stamping on a human face forever,” he said at a London press conference in June, “it’s a corporation that changes its logo every week.'”

No one cares about manufacturing costs — “Amazon wants to sell ebooks profitably at $9.99. In order to do that, they need publishers to sell them the books at some number less than that. It’s the same negotiation Home Depot has with Black & Decker. Except that you don’t see Home Depot setting up websites that selectively quote George Orwell to make their point.”

Orwell estate hits back at Amazon’s corporate ‘doublespeak’ — “Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell prize, an award for political writing set up in honour of the author, was equally outraged. ‘That Amazon should manipulate Orwell against the interests of writers and their publishers is dystopian and shameless,’ she said today. ‘Orwell, before he had any money, gave a lot of it away to poor and young and struggling writers. Amazon has no interest in writers and wants to throttle publishers. It is marching towards becoming a monopoly book and consequently a monopoly ideas provider – in order to maximise its commercial interest. A world in which all thought has to be bought from one place is Orwellian.'”

Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology — The future is fun, the future is fair.

Plot thickens as 900 writers battle Amazon — “Some writers wholeheartedly supported the letter but were afraid to sign, Mr. Preston said. A few signed it and then backed out, citing the same reason… Mr. Preston’s longtime writing partner, Lincoln Child, is among those with qualms.’I am very apprehensive,’ Mr. Child said. ‘Not all David and Goliath stories end happily for the little guy. But I think Doug did the right thing.'”

Kurt Sutter Attacks Google: Stop Profiting from Piracy (Guest Column) — The Sons of Anarchy producer pens a passionate call to action for his fellow creative professionals, highlighting the dangers of Google, which, as he puts it, “is in the process of systematically destroying our artistic future, and more importantly, the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Mossoff on Intellectual Property Rights as Property — Legal scholar Adam Mossoff writes an introduction to the recently published Intellectual Property and Property Rights, which “presents the three basic analytical frameworks in which intellectual property rights are defined or justified as property rights – historical, conceptual, and normative.” A good introduction for those interested in the academic discussion of IP and property.

‘Academic Urban Legends’ — Not copyright related, but should be of interest to those who engage in copyright scholarship. The article points out that the belief that spinach is high in iron is a myth. Scholars have long pointed out that the myth was caused by German scientists in the 1930s after they accidentally put a decimal point in the wrong place. But that story is also a myth, perpetuated by academic sloppiness in citation practices.

Of Macaques and Men: [obligatory monkey pun subtitle here] — Matthew David Brozik weighs in on #monkeyselfie. “Is it possible that Wikimedia and some lawyers have not heard of joint authorship?” he asks. “This legal fiction is surely preferable to the alternative, which denies Slater the full benefits of his efforts. The monkey did the smallest part of the work. The man deserves the reward.”

Aereo files emergancy motion on remand arguing it’s a cable provider entitled to Section 111 compulsory license — via Shades of Gray‘s Naomi Gray comes the just-filed memorandum of law from Aereo in support of its argument that, despite two years strenuously claiming otherwise, it is, actually, a cable provider. But only under the Copyright Act, where it can get the benefit of a below market rate compulsory license for transmitting copyrighted works, not under FCC regulations, which would subject it to retransmission consent and a host of other obligations.

Space Creators: Building the Guardians of the Galaxy — The Credits takes a closer look at some of the craftspeople involved in producing the big-screen version of Guardians of the Galaxy, opening in theaters today.

Copyright.gov — Did you see the redesigned web site for the US Copyright Office yet? Looks pretty sharp!

Ultra Records Responds to Michelle Phan & Kaskade Copyright Controversy — “When a music artist or songwriter signs to Ultra, it is our responsibility to protect what they have created. Enforcing copyrights is fundamental to the survival of artists, writers and producers, and to Ultra’s ability to continue to invest in and support them, so that they can continue to bring great music to music fans around the world. Whatever Ultra collects enforcing these important rights is shared with its artists according to their agreements.”

Should there be a system for resolving small copyright claims? — A look at last week’s House Judiciary IP Subcommittee’s hearings on copyright remedies and the question of whether Congress should create an expedited process for resolving copyright disputes involving low dollar amounts. Last year, the US Copyright Office released a report recommending just that.

We’re All Waiting, BitTorrent — “Funny how some technology companies like BitTorrent are always extolling the unlimited power of technology – except when it can be used to help creators by preventing the unauthorized distribution of their creative content.”

This past week, a DVD quality copy of Expendables 3 leaked onto online pirate sites, weeks before its August 15 box office debut. Along with the news came the usual claims that filmmakers shouldn’t worry about pre-release piracy—it’s good promotion, says David Pierce at the Verge, and internet commenters offer scores of other rationalizations.

But over at the Technology Policy Institute Blog, researcher Michael W. Smith says the unauthorized pre-release copy will likely hurt box office revenues for the film. He and his colleagues studied the effect of pre-release movie piracy on box office revenue and found that, on average, it “results in a 19% reduction in box office revenue relative to what would have occurred if piracy were only available after the movie’s release.”

Smith’s study is the first peer-reviewed journal article to look at this particular form of piracy. It was recently accepted for publication in the Information Systems Research journal, but a pre-publication draft is available at SSRN.

The study casts doubts on claims that pre-release piracy has no impact on theatrical revenue or even has a beneficial effect by generating buzz. On the contrary, Smith finds that “pre-release piracy significantly reduces a movie’s expected box office revenue and that this impact is stronger earlier in a movie’s lifecycle than in later periods.”

Smith concludes the report by noting some of its limitations. It doesn’t look at the intensity of pre-release pirating, nor at the quality of the unauthorized copies, data which may provide additional insights. It also does not consider the effect of pre-release piracy on different types of films, nor does it examine the effects on revenue streams besides the box office, such as DVD sales.

These last two limitations are particularly worth further research. Most films—particularly indie and niche films—don’t ever screen in theaters, and even among those films that do, box office revenue is only a part of overall revenues.

While Smith’s study is the first peer-reviewed article to look specifically at pre-release piracy and its effects, it is not the first to look at the effects of other forms of piracy on films. In fact, in his article, Smith notes that eight peer-reviewed studies so far have looked at the effect of piracy on film sales, and, more significantly, seven of the eight studies have found “that piracy results in significant harm to motion picture sales.” A broader literature review – focusing not solely on films but on other types of works such as recorded music – found that “The vast majority of papers which have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals — papers spanning a variety of methods, time periods, and contexts — find that piracy causes a statistically significant decrease in sales.”

And yet some measure of file-sharing denialism persists. It, first, runs counter to common sense—yes, if people can get something for free they’ll buy less, and if people buy less of something, less of it will be produced. But it also, as seen above, is not supported by the overwhelming majority of empirical evidence.

In ‘The Expendables 3’ Torrent and the Techno-Utopian Delusion, Indiewire writer Sam Adams sees through this denialism, or, as he calls it, “sheer self-justifying delusion.” In doing so, he touches on a larger point.

Adams notes that some of the rationalization for downloading The Expendables 3 is based on the idea that it is not a movie but a show, one in which the experience of watching in the theater takes precedence (and thus justifies watching an illegitimate, lower-quality version). Because of this, he cautions:

And when you’re paying for the experience — not out of curiosity or as a way of supporting an ecosystem that allows the creation of new work — it only makes sense to sample the product beforehand. But in so doing, you’re pushing cinema in a direction where every movie has to be a show: Either it’s big and loud enough to make you feel like you’re missing out by watching it (legally or illegally) at home or it might as well not show up to play.

CNET’s Nick Statt raises similar concerns:

We often complain about “sequelitis” and the onslaught of low-quality, brainless action movies and series reboots, yet don’t ever seem to take responsibility for the fact that our collective unwillingness to pay for things that don’t have formulaic payout is what drives creative decision making.

In the current model, everything from “Boyhood” and “12 Years A Slave” to “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Gravity” are more harmed by systemic piracy because it devalues films as an art form. Risks are not rewarded when the only movie with a concrete return on its investment is a $200 million narrative train wreck about robot cars or a tongue-and-cheek ensemble action flick featuring Rocky, the former governor of California, and Han Solo.

I enjoy such films, as do millions of others. But it would be a shame if that was all we got to see. The ultimate point is that piracy has societal effects beyond any given film’s bottom line.

In Copyright Extremophiles: Do Creative Industries Thrive or Just Survive in China’s High-Piracy Environment?1 published earlier this year, Eric Priest digs into some of these less obvious effects of piracy in more detail. The claim is sometimes made that maybe copyright—the legal foundation that provides exchange value for creative works—is irrelevant since creativity still exists in areas, such as China, where piracy runs rampant. Priest refutes this by comparing creators in high-piracy areas to biological organisms known as extremophiles.

Just as microorganisms have evolved to thrive in superheated deep-sea vents or highly acidic environments, so too can a subset of creative professionals find ways to monetize their works even in a high-piracy environment. The fact that some monetization models can work for some types of producers or artists in China does not mean that optimal or even near-optimal conditions exist for the development of flourishing, healthy, and stable creative industries. In short, poor copyright enforcement inflicts significant and persistent harms on China’s music and film industries. To invoke the extremophiles analogy, China’s inhospitable creative industry environment may support narrow strains of creative “life,” but with an effective regime of copyright norms and enforcement, China’s creative ecosystem could more closely resemble a lush, diverse rain-forest.

Priest’s research unpacks some of the more pernicious results that piracy has on China’s film and music industries. Along with undermining the ability of a professional class of creators to sustain their livelihoods, high piracy has made these industries “neither robust nor stable” and lead them to become “hyper-dependent on a single revenue stream” (box office for films and ringback tones for music). Priest concludes:

This lack of revenue stream diversity distorts and undermines the creative ecosystem in at least three ways. First, the scarcity of monetization options creates a winner-take-all market dominated by big producers. The paucity of other revenue sources seriously undermines financial support for smaller, independent producers.

Second, rampant piracy and concentration of revenue streams distorts market signals to producers. For example, film producers are incentivized to invest in a relatively narrow range of works that attract the audience whose tastes are most easily monetized – young, urban cinemagoers. Music producers likely are incentivized to produce music that will make the most marketable ringtones.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, reduced revenue stream diversity disproportionately exposes producers to the whims of peculiar markets and exploitation by gatekeeper or monopsonist intermediaries. China’s music industry proves an especially vivid example, as ringback tones gross more than $4 billion annually, but the mobile operators who control ringback tone distribution keep more than ninety-eight percent of that revenue for themselves. The meager two percent that goes to copyright owners amounts to ninety percent of those copyright owners’ total income from recorded music. So if ringtones lose their appeal with consumers, the recording industry will collapse. Without other viable revenue streams to leverage, musicians, producers, and record labels have little choice but to grin and bear it while a state telecommunications monopoly enjoys the great bulk of the rewards of their artistic efforts.

It seems difficult to make a more compelling case for copyright. How creators and the film industry responds to pre-release and other forms of piracy is a wholly separate topic, but the fact remains that any type of piracy has a significant negative effect on revenues as well as the stability and vitality of creative and cultural industries. If we want to maintain robust and independent creativity, we should not be so quick to treat copyright as expendable.

Footnotes

  1. 27 Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 469 (2014). []

Garrett Brown: An Interview with a Visionary-Part 1 — Nick Friedman speaks with Garrett Brown, a cinematographer and inventor of the Steadicam, an innovation which, in the words of Stanley Kubrick (who famously used it in The Shining) “would revolutionize the way films are shot.”

Great Photos, Little Cash: The Problem of “Small Claims” in Copyright — Coinciding with the House Judiciary IP Subcommittee’s hearing on copyright remedies, attorney Tara Aaron highlights a recent default judgment against a website that had allegedly infringed a photographer’s copyrights. Though the court awarded the photographer statutory damages and attorney fees, because the award of attorney fees was limited by local rules, the photographer still ended up short. It’s a good case study for the need for a “small claims” procedure.

“Notice & Notice” does Not Contribute to a Balanced Copyright System — A comparison between the US notice-and-takedown system and Canada’s new notice-and-notice system and why the first is better for creators.

Disney’s corporate synergy, 1957 and today — Screenwriter John August shares an interesting chart from 1957 showing how “the various elements of the Walt Disney company fit together.” This holds true still today. “The company makes money in many ways, but feature films are still the key drivers. You don’t get Cars merchandise without the movie. The success of Frozen is an example of how Disney can capitalize on a hit film by using it in other divisions: Disneyland attractions, TV tie-ins (Once Upon a Time), music, books, merchandise, and possibly a Broadway musical.”

Report on the responses to the Public Consultation on the Review of the EU Copyright Rules — Like the US, the European Union is currently in the process of reviewing its copyright laws. Here is the result of a public consultation process that concluded earlier this year, generating nearly 10,000 responses. “The consultation covered a broad range of issues, identified in the Commission communication on content in the digital single market , i.e.: ‘territoriality in the Internal Market, harmonisation, limitations and exceptions to copyright in the digital age; fragmentation of the EU copyright market; and how to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of enforcement while underpinning its legitimacy in the wider context of copyright reform’.”

“Fifteen years of utter bollocks”: how a generation’s freeloading has starved creativity — A great essay from author Chris Ruen, whose excellent book Freeloading: How our insatiable appetite for free content is starving creativity has recently been released in the UK. “Any desperate excuse was good enough, so long as it justified the original campaign. Otherwise, the people who fought against copyright in this battle would have to confront the fact that they were never carrying the flag for freedom or ‘openness’, but for aggression, entitlement and selfishness masked by superficial delusions of grandeur.”

5 Major Publications that Cover Copyright Well — From Jonathan Bailey at PlagiarismToday, a nice list of mainstream news sources with above average copyright coverage.

Aereo Hits Roadblock in Effort to Become Cable System — Back in the District Court following the Supreme Court’s remand, Aereo pursued a new line of argument: that it is a cable system, and thus entitled to carry broadcast programming under the Copyright Act’s Section 111 compulsory license. This week, the Copyright Office rejected that argument (though it provisionally accepted the application until the court rules on the issue). Aereo still has the option of bringing the question to the FCC, but that would subject it to a host of regulations, including the need to negotiate retransmission consent with the broadcasters.

DMCA’s protection of copyright management information applied to non-electronic works — Evan Brown provides a heads-up on a recent decision involving § 1202, a lesser known section of the DMCA that prohibits the removal or alteration of “copyright management information.” The question here was whether that provision applies “only to electronic works intended for distribution over the internet, or whether it applies to more traditional works such as hard copy technical drawings.” The court here chose the latter.

Fishman on Creating Around Copyright — “It is generally understood that the copyright system constrains downstream creators by limiting their ability to use protected works in follow-on expression. Those who view the promotion of creativity as copyright’s mission usually consider this constraint to be a necessary evil at best and an unnecessary one at worst. This conventional wisdom rests on the seemingly intuitive premise that more creative choice will deliver more creativity. Yet that premise is belied by both the history of the arts and contemporary psychological research on the creative process. In fact, creativity flourishes best not under complete freedom, but rather under a moderate amount of restriction.”

Today, the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet is continuing its comprehensive review of US copyright law with a hearing on moral rights, termination rights, resale royalty, and copyright term.

Perhaps no other feature of copyright law is so widely criticized as its term — to the point where the declaration that “copyright lasts too long!” seemingly needs no further support.

But perhaps no other copyright doctrine is also subject to as much misinformation as the term of copyright. It’s not difficult to find those who are absolutely convinced copyright term will be extended within the next several years, because this is part of an indisputable pattern of extending copyright term every 20 years.1 These and similar assertions evaporate under the slightest scrutiny. Therefore, before we can have a useful discussion on the length of copyright protection, it’s necessary to look at how the current term of copyright protection evolved in the US and how that compares to copyright protection in other countries.

The genesis of copyright law

The journey begins in England with the Statute of Anne. Passed in 1710, the Act is considered the first modern copyright law, vesting exclusive rights to reprint books to any and all authors. The Act also limited the exclusive rights to a term of fourteen years, with an option to renew protection for an additional fourteen years. At the end of this period, the exclusive rights expired, allowing anybody besides the author or publisher to print and reprint the work. This length was borrowed from the term for protection of letters patent that the earlier Statute of Monopolies established in 1624.2 And that term was, according to one scholar, “based on the idea that 2 sets of apprentices should, in 7 years each, be trained in the new techniques” that were protected under such letters patent.3

The United States was the second country to adopt a general copyright law. In 1790, Congress passed a Copyright Act that borrowed extensively from the Statute of Anne, including the “14 + 14″ year term.4 The law was passed with only the most cursory of discussion in the legislature, so the importation of Britain’s act almost word for word was likely driven by expedience more than anything else.

The third modern copyright law came out of France, itself also emerging from a revolution, and it diverged from Britain and the US in terms of duration. In 1793, only three years after the first US Copyright Act was passed, the French National Convention passed a decree providing for copyright protection lasting the life of the author plus ten years.5 (Thomas Paine, who “counted copyright agitation among his many other revolutionary interests”, was a member of the legislature that passed the French act).6

The shift to a life-based term

England would follow France and adopt a term based on the life of the author shortly after the 19th century rolled around. In 1814, the term of protection was extended to the life of the author or 28 years, whichever was longer.7 In 1842, England extended the copyright term to the life of the author plus seven years, or forty-two years, whichever was longer.8

The US did not follow suit to a life of the author based term, though it did bump up the initial term of protection to 28 years in 1831 (the renewal period remained at 14 years).9 And thus, despite being the second nation to provide for general copyright protection, it would fall behind international norms for the majority of its history. During the 19th century, many countries with copyright laws moved toward a “life plus” duration. One 19th century treatise provides this catalog:

Sweden, formerly perpetual, now for life and fifty years, no registration; Denmark, for life and thirty years, no registration or deposit; Switzerland, for life or thirty years; Russia, for life and fifty years, registration but not deposit being required, with complicated provisions as to new editions; Turkey, for forty years, or twenty for translations; Greece, for fifteen years, subject to royal extension; Mexico, which has perpetual literary copyright, registration and deposit being obligatory; Venezuela, for life and fourteen years, or deposit and registration; Chili, for life and five years; Brazil, for life and ten years ; Japan, for thirty years, with extension to forty-five.10

France would be one of the first countries to settle on life of the author plus 50 years, adopting that term in 1866.11 Several other European countries would follow suit toward the latter half of the 19th century.

In 1887, the following countries adopted the Berne Convention, the world’s first multilateral international agreement on copyright: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Haiti, India, Italy, Liberia, Monaco, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. The agreement set minimum standards for copyright protection that agreeing parties must extend to works of authors from member states. The original text did not address duration of protection, but that would soon change.12

The US effort to join the international community

At the turn of the 20th century, US lawmakers looked to revise the copyright law. At that time, R.R. Bowker of the American Copyright League pointed out:

A copyright term extending through and beyond the life of the author has been adopted by thirty-seven countries, or more than half of those which have copyright laws, while five others give perpetual copyright; the term of life and fifty years is adopted by France and fourteen other nations, and although life and thirty years is proposed in Lord Herschel’s British draft, life and fifty years has also been proposed as an alternative in England.

An early version of a US revision bill in 1906 proposed a term of life of the author plus fifty years.13 The proposal was ultimately dropped in favor of the existing convention of a set term with an optional renewal term, as this was seen as more favorable to authors. The renewal term, however, was extended to match the initial term of 28 years.14

The Berne Convention, which was gradually adding new member parties, had set a voluntary minimum term of life of the author plus 50 years in 1908. England adopted this term in 1911, which extended to its Commonwealth Countries — Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, etc.15 Other countries would slowly but surely follow suit, and Berne made the term mandatory in 1948. The decades following the US enactment of the 1909 Act saw a number of unsuccessful efforts to join Berne, hampered in part by two World Wars and a Great Depression. Bills introduced in 1924, 1925, 1926, 1930, and 1940 called for a term of life of the author plus 50 years; advocates for this term also voiced their views at hearings on other bills during this timeframe.16

But it would not be until 1955 that the US began in earnest the process that would lead to the 1976 Copyright Act, the current law. In that year, Congress appropriated funds to the US Copyright Office to engage in a series of studies on issues relating to copyright revision. One study covered the duration of copyright and noted that by this point over half of all countries with copyright laws protected a work for life of the author plus 50 years.

In this group are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, Eire, Italy, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Switzerland, Syria, Turkey, Union of South Africa, and Vatican.

Some countries had longer post-life terms and some had shorter; however, by the 1950s, the US stood alone with the Phillippine Islands in diverging from a “life plus” copyright term.

By 1965, a general revision bill included a term of life of the author plus 50 years. But revision efforts stalled, primarily due to stark disagreements over a number of unresolved issues such as library photocopying and community antenna television providers.17 Congress was concerned about the inequities that would fall upon authors because of a bogged-down legislative process, so during this time period, it passed a series of nine interim extensions to copyright duration.18 (Lawrence Lessig counts each of these nine interim extensions when he makes his famous claim that Congress extended copyright term 11 times since 1962 and also defines this series of interim extensions preceding the general revision as “a practice that has defined copyright law since).19 The revision finally passed in 1976, going into effect in 1978, over a century since France adopted a life plus 50 term and decades after most every other country had followed suit.20

But the US continued to lag behind. In 1965, for example, Germany adopted a term of life of the author plus seventy years.

The shift to “life plus 70″

A 1971 guide from WIPO on the Berne Convention, which then consisted of over 60 member parties, explained the justification of a life plus fifty term:

By computing the term of protection from the date of the author’s death, the Convention binds the work to its creator. Honest men can differ on how long this should be: some feel it should be for ever since the nature of the work of the mind remains, throughout the ages, a reflection of the character of its creator. Like a fine piece of furniture, it gives pleasure to generation upon generation. But the particular nature of intellectual property, resulting in a need, in the interests of the public at large, for it to be made known without let or hindrance for the enrichment of culture, suggest some limit on the duration of the monopoly enjoyed by authors and their heirs in the exploitation of their works.

It is not merely by chance that fifty years was chosen. Most countries have felt it fair and right that the average lifetime of an author and his direct descendants should be covered, i.e., three generations.

In 1993, the Council of European Communities, finding that “the minimum term of protection laid down by the Berne Convention, namely the life of the author and 50 years after his death, was intended to provide protection for the author and the first two generations of his descendants; whereas the average lifespan in the Community has grown longer, to the point where this term is no longer sufficient to cover two generations”, directed its Member States which hadn’t already granted the term to adopt a “life plus seventy” copyright duration.21 The U.S., narrowing the lag behind international norms, adopted a term of life plus seventy in 1997,22 citing a need to harmonize protection with its global trading partners.23

Today, 167 countries are Member Parties of the Berne Convention and provide for a minimum of life of the author plus fifty years. Over 65 of these countries provide for life of the author plus seventy years, while an additional seven provide greater length.24

How long should copyright last?

One can argue over the “optimal” length of copyright protection—a discussion beyond the scope of this already lengthy article—but one can’t assert after surveying this history that, for example, Congress extends copyright every time Disney’s Steamboat Willie is about to enter the public domain.25

Copyright duration is a hot topic. But it is also a bit of a red herring. Creators’ main concern is lack of effective protection now, so the length of protection is somewhat a moot point. And issues raised by user communities are only tangentially related to duration, meaning any changes to term would only result in marginal differences to the real issues.

Footnotes

  1. See, for example, Timothy B. Lee, “15 years ago, Congress kept Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. Will they do it again?“, The Switch (Oct. 25, 2013); Jeff John Roberts, “Will copyright be extended 20 more years? An old debate returns“, GigaOM (Aug. 20, 2013); Eugene Volokh, “Copyright Extension Prediction?“, Volokh Conspiracy (Aug. 19, 2013). []
  2. Ronan Deazley, ‘Commentary on the Statute of Monopolies 1624‘, in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900) (eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, 2008). []
  3. Fritz Machlup, “An Economic Review of the Patent System”, pg 5, Study of the Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, United States Printing Office, Washington: 1958. []
  4. See Oren Bracha, The Adventures of the Statute of Anne in the Land of Unlimited Possibilities: The Life of a Legal Transplant, 25 Berkeley Technology Law Journal 1427 (2010). []
  5. French Literary and Artistic Property Act, Paris (1793), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org. []
  6. William Patry, Copyright Law and Practice, Chapter 1 (BNA 2000). []
  7. Copyright Act, London (1814), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer. []
  8. Copyright Law Amendment Act, 1842, 5 & 6 Vict., c.45. []
  9. Copyright Act of 1831, 4 Stat. 436. []
  10. R.R. Bowker, Copyright, Its Law and Its Literature, pg. 24 (1886). []
  11. Walter Arthur Copinger, The Law of Copyright in Works of Literature and Art, pg. 238 (1870). []
  12. It did, however, set a minimum term of protection for translations. Around this time, it became common to provide different terms of protection depending on subject matter (such as one term for literary works and a different term for sculptures or phonographs) as well as different terms depending on authorship (for example, different terms for anonymous authors or corporate authors. For simplicity purposes, I will subsequently refer only to the term of a natural author of a literary work when I discuss copyright duration. []
  13. S. 6330 and H.R. 19853, Section 18(c), 59th Congress, 1st Session. []
  14. Copyright Act of 1909. []
  15. Copyright Act of 1911. []
  16. James J. Guinan, Jr., Duration of Copyright, Copyright Law Revision Study No. 30, Copyright Office (1957). []
  17. See William Patry, Copyright Law and Practice, Chapter 1 (BNA 2000). []
  18. Scott M. Martin, The Mythology of the Public Domain: Exploring the Myths Behind Attacks on the Duration of Copyright Protection, 36 Loyola L.A. Law Review 253, 260-61 (2002). []
  19. Free Culture, pg. 134. []
  20. Copyright Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2541. []
  21. Council Directive 93/98, 1993 O.J. (L 290/9). []
  22. Copyright Term Extension Act, 112 Stat. 2827. []
  23. Senate Report No. 104-315, 104th Cong., 2d Sess (1996). []
  24. Wikipedia, List of countries’ copyright lengths, visited July 14, 2014. []
  25. In his recent book, Intellectual Privilege, Tom Bell spends considerable effort—including illustrations—to imply a correlation between US copyright term length and the entry of Steamboat Willie into the public domain before dismissing it by saying, “No one can, of course, say with certainty whether or to what degree lobbying by the Walt Disney Company drove those copyright extensions.” []
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