Copyright law in the United States is much more complex than it used to be. During my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was often relatively easy to learn how long a copyright was good for in the United States. U.S. copyright law then covered items for 28 years, with an additional 28 years if renewed, for a total of 56 years.
Various modifications to United States copyright laws that took effect in 1978 and in the decades since then make things much more complicated. Now the length of copyright protection varies much depending on when an item was produced, how long the author lives, etc.
But the copyright protection now lasts substantially longer than 56 years. A copy of the United States copyright law is located on the U.S. Copyright Office website.1
While many corporations (and individuals) holding copyrights might desire for their copyright protection to last forever, it seems reasonable to me to limit it to perhaps 50 years. And I support retaining the requirement that makes most writing, etc., covered automatically by copyright law when it is produced without having to submit it formally to the U.S. Copyright Office.
A persuasive case for changing copyright laws to shorten the length of protection offered was written by William Patry (who deals with copyright issues for Google, Inc.) and posted on the CNN website.2 Mr. Patry (and Google) perhaps have personal reasons for desiring such changes to copyright law. But much of his argument makes sense to me, too.
Personally, if I write a book or screenplay or produce something else that is covered under copyright law, 50 years seems an adequate time to receive income for it. Following that period, allowing it to be reproduced by others would seem to encourage the sharing of ideas and the creation of various revisions by others.
My Specific Proposal
Therefore, I propose making all things produced in the future that are covered by United States copyright law be subject to be in the public domain after 50 years.
For existing works, I propose that anything currently covered under U.S. copyright law enter the public domain 20 years from now if that would be at least 50 years after its creation, unless it would do so sooner under existing law. Items currently covered under copyright law that would reach 50 years of coverage more than 20 years from now would have copyright coverage end when the 50 year period is up.
My approach would continue the current confusing system for 20 years during a transition period. But in 2032 we would have a shorter, simpler copyright law where everything would either be in the public domain or entering the public domain 50 years after its creation. If the date of creation is unknown, the earliest known existence of the work would be used as the beginning point of its copyright protection.
It would be nice, too, if there was better agreement on what constituted “fair use” when quoting from copyrighted works without permission. Currently various authors/publications/websites interpret “fair use” differently, with some seeking to limit it to a few words from one sentence in a book, while others willingly allow using the first paragraph of a one page article.
It would also be helpful if all nations reached agreement on a time period for copyrights and other aspects of copyright law. Perhaps working in cooperation with the World Intellectual Property Organization3 could lead to improvements in these areas.
But I think shortening and simplifying copyright law here in the United States seems like a good start.
Note: This article was last revised on February 24, 2012.
1 U.S. Copyright Office; “Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code”; U.S. Copyright Office; website accessed February 19, 2012 http://www.copyright.gov/title17/
2 William Patry; “Time to update copyright law?”; CNN; January 31, 2012; website accessed February 19, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/31/opinion/patry-copyright-law/index.html?hpt=hp_bn9
3 The World Intellectual Property Organization; “What is WIPO?”; WIPO; website accessed February 19, 2012. http://www.wipo.int/about-wipo/en/