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The below image shows how the duration of US copyright laws has increased to 4x what it was originally. Is there a reason that copyright duration has only been extended in the US? What are the historical reasons for extending copyright protection?

copyrighte

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Some information for the last extension can be found at Wikipedia: Copyright Term Extension Act –  knut Aug 6 '12 at 9:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Its important to start talking about copyright by explaining what it is. In the USA, it is not an artist's natural right to his own work, or somesuch. It is not a property right. It is instead a bargain. We (the public) allow someone to have a temporary monopoly on reproduction of a work, and we gain (eventually) more Public Domain works.

So you may now find yourself asking how it is that we are now just giving big companies quasi-perpetual copy monopolies, for no apparent benifit to ourselves? That's a pretty crappy bargain on the public's part, isn't it?

The basic answer here is that there's a lot of money in a (very) few old copyrights, which makes those few copyright holders both rich and motivated to spend some of that money to keep their copyrights.

It may be true that there'd be more value (even monetary) to society in allowing more stuff into the Public Domain. However, that money doesn't exist yet, and would be much more spread out over all of society. So there really isn't anybody nearly as highly motivated to shorten copyright durations.

Pit these two groups together, and its pretty clear which direction the political pressure will push things.

It isn't (as some people claim) all about Disney. However, they make a very good example. They are a company who has made tons of money off of Public Domain stories (fairy tales), and then fight like tigers to keep anything from entering the Public Domain ever again.

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They also make a lot of money off merchandising certain figures who are very well known and could possibly be in the public domain. –  MichaelF Aug 6 '12 at 14:37
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Sorry, but you have really blurred the lines between Copyright and Trademarks. A Copyright DOES identify ownersip in a tangible property. Also, I had to give a downvote because your answer crosses the line between answering and providing opinion. –  Steven Drennon Aug 6 '12 at 16:06
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@StevenDrennon - I'm confused. I said nothing about trademarks. Were you talking about MichaelF's comment if the first sentence and mine in the second? –  T.E.D. Aug 6 '12 at 18:24
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@StevenDrennon - Interesting. You did notice me saying this isn't about Disney there, right? I suspect we are in agreement about this point. –  T.E.D. Aug 6 '12 at 18:58
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Hmmm. Perhaps part of the problem was that I misspelled the word "claim" in that sentence. What can I say, its a special skill. I can misspell anything! –  T.E.D. Aug 6 '12 at 19:31

Disney doesn't want the copyright over Micky Mouse to expire, so when the date is approaching, they "kindly ask" the government to extend it again.

Micky has been created in 1928, so the copyright duration will always be at least (current year - 1928 + 1).

Similarly, there has always been someone with similar interests and enough power to force this extension.

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Perhaps some sources and other examples can be added to make this answer better. For example, you may want to mention the effect of the second world war. Different reasons always but in summary you are right. –  Monster Truck Aug 6 '12 at 12:34
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@MonsterTruck - gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-1998-10-07/pdf/… . If you find Rep. Bono's testimony in there, she discusses how she, her late husband Sonny, and the head of the MPAA all desired to effectively make copyrights perpetual (despite what the Constitution says). –  T.E.D. Aug 6 '12 at 14:17
    
Thanks @TED. As always, very helpful. –  Monster Truck Aug 8 '12 at 11:43

First of all, contrary to what TED stated, a Copyright IS a legal construct that ensures that an author or artist's original work is protected. A Copyright grants a creator of original work the exclusive rights to that work for a defined period of time, and it is the creator of that work who OWNS the Copyright. As a result, the Copyright owner has the right to receive compensation for any use of that original work. Furthermore, as a tangible property, it can be passed on as an inheritance, ensuring that the creator's descendants have the same legal protection.

Most countries, including the United States, follow the rules of the Berne Convention, in which that period of protection is defined as life plus 70 years. This means that once the creator dies, his descendants or heirs will be entitled to the same protection and compensation for 70 years after the creator's death. These heirs may now choose to sell that Copyright or grant licenses for the use of the work for certain compensation.

The duration of a Copyright has continuously changed to allow the creator and his descendants to benefit from those works for a longer period of time. As a published author myself, I take comfort in knowing that even after I die, my children and even grandchildren will continue to receive royalties from my works.

On the other hand, some entities have chosen to further protect their work by taking out a Trademark on a specific character, such as Mickey Mouse. In this case, the entity is staking claim to just that character, and the Trademark provides them legal protection against anyone using that individual character in any subsequent works. Even though the original "story" in which Mickey Mouse may no longer be protected by Copyright, the character itself IS protected by the Trademark. This is where you get into completely different types of licensing agreements that might include material products such as shirts and mugs.

In order to obtain such a Trademark and thereby restrict the use of a specific character, it must be demonstrated that the character is recognizable enough to make it truly unique. If someone wanted to obtain a Trademark for a minor character in a story that never really sold well in the first place, that request would be denied.

EDIT: When someone purchases a book by an author, the author receives royalties for that book. The transfer of royalties to the author is a direct result of the author granting permission for the book to be published in the first place. The author may also grant a percentage of the sales to go to the publisher, but the publisher only benefits because the author granted that permission in exchange for other services. The person who bought the book can do whatever they want with the physical copy of the book itself, including reselling it. However, the purchaser CANNOT write a new book using the same characters and setting from the original book without permission from the author. THIS is what is protected by the Copyright.

Regarding the discussion on whether or not a Copyright is tangible property, I found a document at the US Copyright office that provides further clarification on this matter:

A copyright may also be conveyed by operation of law and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.

Copyright is a personal property right, and it is subject to the various state laws and regulations that govern the ownership, inheritance, or transfer of personal property as well as terms of contracts or conduct of business.

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I don't understand the hit at me at all here. I said nothing about "protection". Also, copyright does not give creators exclusive rights to a work, only to its reproduction (hence the name). A person in legal posession of a copyrighted work can legally do what they please with it (aside from copying it). Also, copyrights are not owned. They are "held". They are not covered under USA property law either, they are covered under USA copyright law, which is different. Copyright holders just like to claim they are property, because property law is traditionally stronger than copyright law. –  T.E.D. Aug 6 '12 at 18:28
    
You are incorrect. A Copyright DOES give the creator exclusive rights in determining how their work is used and also guarantees they receive compensation, should they desire it. A Copyright IS recognized as a tangible property and CAN be assigned to heirs or others at the discretion of the creator. Anyone who inherits a Copyright is entitled to the exact same compensation and privileges as the original Copyright holder. –  Steven Drennon Aug 6 '12 at 18:31
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Nope. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-sale_doctrine , among other things. If I buy your book, I'm perfectly free to resell it, use it to line a birdcage, set it up on an altar and worship it as a god, etc. You don't get a say in it. I just can't copy it. –  T.E.D. Aug 6 '12 at 18:43
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What you are missing is that you could never buy the book in the first place unless I, as the Copyright owner, granted permission for the book to be published. You now own the book, but NOT the Copyright. You can do what you want with the book, but NOT the content. You can't write your own books using my characters or set in my imaginary world unless I grant you permission or license those rights to you. This is a difference between proprietary and physical ownership, very different. –  Steven Drennon Aug 6 '12 at 20:10
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Actually, people can do anything they want with the content of your book, except publishing copies or derivatives. I can definitely use the characters and the world all I want. A copyright holder's only granted protection is an exclusive right for placing the work into the public sphere (i.e. public-ation), nothing more. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 10 '12 at 7:15

To be rather boring:

  • Primary accumulation and enclosures of the commons

Since the 1970s and social history, particularly reflecting on E. P. Thompson's work and the work of C.L.R. James, some of the strands of Marxist historiography reacting to the humanist Marxist turn in the 1940s and 1950s (Johnson-Forrest, the Hungarians, the Operismo) have taken to viewing the enforcement of property rights as far more contingent in any society than previous perhaps more "schematic" Marxist historians did. For an example lying outside of that tradition, and more inside the US new left tradition, there's a book on the floor describing medieval property law as a continuous contest between nascent bourgeoisie (in their true form as oppressed urban artisans) contra feudal extractions and dues.

Viewed from this angle, the historiography has bent towards viewing "primary accumulation" as much much more important, and as a continuous process occurring throughout the period of capitalism. This in some ways extends Lenin's thesis on Imperialism and the necessity of differential accumulation within capitalism to prop up the advanced metropole.

The effects of this is that Capitalism continuously seeks out new areas of life, society and human conduct to commodify, valorise and reduce to the value form. In the case of copyright and IP, this involves both the extension of the duration of property (with an obvious limit in effectively perpetual property), and the extension of the scope of property (gene patenting for example).

This is a relatively common understanding of the structure driving the extension of intellectual property in time amongst Marxists—though some cling to an older more schematic view and seek to deny the importance of recent enclosures.

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I like your historical and philosophical perspective. –  JoeHobbit Aug 8 '12 at 1:20

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