NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Copyrights Extended Beyond The Pale

March 20, 2002

While the Constitution imposed strict limits on the length of copyrights, modern corporations have successfully pressed for extensions far beyond the Framers' intent, say critics. They claim this is stifling the ability of the Internet to provide the building blocks for innovation.

  • In 1790, copyrights lasted 14 years, and when they lapsed creative works entered the public domain.
  • But with the 1998 extension (after an earlier extension beyond an author's life that brought the U.S. into line with European countries) -- the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act -- the protection period was extended to 70 years after the death of the creator and 95 years for works owned by corporations.
  • But critics contend the Act gives corporations too much authority over new film works, computer codes, music distribution and other aspects of the creative process.

As a result, the creative process becomes more difficult and expensive.

  • A public TV documentary was held up by attorneys who demanded a hefty license fee because 2 seconds of "The Simpsons" was playing on a TV screen in one scene.
  • When author Alice Randall recreated the plot for Gone With The Wind for a version of the story from a slave's perspective, she was hit with a lawsuit that took $100,000 to overcome.
  • If copyright is perpetuated and there are perpetual controls, the creative process decreases dramatically, says Lawrence Lessig of Stanford University.

Also, while media corporations portray their copyright lobbying as a noble fight for artists, copyright extensions produce little or no money for the artists -- while extending the reach of corporations into consumers' lives.

The stranglehold copyrights hold on thousands of vital works, Lessig and others argue, allows the material to die unused. That was not the intent of the original copyright laws enacted by Congress.

Source: Doug Bedell, "Free Mickey," Dallas Morning News, March 14, 2002.


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