The Next Copyright Act – A Shortened Term?

Should the current term of copyrights be shortened? That is a rather significant topic that has been brought up in discussions over the last 10 months after Maria Pallante (U.S. Register of Copyrights) presented her “The Next Great Copyright Act” in March of 2013. In a section of her presentation titled “Thinking A Little More Boldly”, Ms. Pallante introduces the idea by saying, “Perhaps the next great copyright act could take a new approach to term…for the purpose of injecting some balance into the equation. More specifically, perhaps the law could shift the burden of the last twenty years from the user to the copyright owner, so that at least in some instances, copyright owners would have to assert their continued interest in exploiting the work by registering with the Copyright Office in a timely manner. And if they did not, the works would enter the public domain.”

Ouch. I think I have some problems with that on the surface. But first, let’s break it down and make sure we’re all on the same page. Is this really a call to shorten the copyright term, or is it more an attempt to motivate owners to keep records up to date for the benefit of the public?

Historically, copyright terms have only increased in prior copyright law revisions. The Copyright Act of 1909 defined the term of protection for 28 years, and added an additional 28 years if the song was “renewed” properly. The Copyright Act of 1976 then extended pre-1978 copyrights by adding 19 years to the renewal period, for a total of 75 years of protection. It also defined post-1978 copyrights as life of the author plus 50 years. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act increased the term another 20 years to a total of 95 years for pre-1978 works, and life plus 70 years for post-1978 works.

Even after the 1976 Copyright Act, works were inadvertently thrown into the public domain through inaction, or even wrong action, due to requirements that were difficult for many owners to fully understand. Years ago, I was personally involved with a pre-1978 copyright that was found to be in the public domain simply because a copyright notice had not been correctly affixed to a print publication by the owner during its first 28 year term. And in multiple cases, I’ve worked with pre-1978 copyrights that entered the public domain because the renewal application had either not been filed in a timely manner during the 28th year, or the form was simply not filled out correctly. The law was then updated to prevent some of these “premature” losses to the world of public domain, including a change effective 1992 where renewals were considered automatic and valid even if an actual renewal application was not registered in the Copyright Office. There are some benefits defined in order to entice owners to actually file paper renewal registrations (Circular 15, Renewal of Copyright), but the benefits were not that significant, and didn’t seem to make much of a difference in motivating owners to file.

So what influenced congress to change this law requiring owners to file an actual renewal application? One was a testimony by Jacqueline Byrd, the widow of songwriter Robert Byrd, author of “Little Bitty Pretty One”, a 1957 hit song, who told the legislatures she intercepted a letter from the Copyright Office to her husband, who was dying of cancer at the time, that the office had not received a renewal application for his hit song in the 28th year, and that royalties will stop being paid because the song is now in the public domain. Mrs. Byrd never told her husband, who died shortly afterward. Had the song been renewed properly, she and her four children would have been able to receive royalties on the song through 2037. Lawmakers made the right decision, and got rid of the necessity of timely registration that many times had to be understood and completed by family members who had no idea of this critical copyright requirement.

Think about the fact that the actual owners of a copyright nearing its last 20 years are not the authors, but likely the spouse, children, or even grandchildren. These people simply don’t know what needs to be done. And why, or how, would they? We’re potentially putting an undue burden of understanding technical and complicated registrations on a person who just received ownership in a copyright either by will, or even in the absence of one, simply by the death of a spouse, parent or family member. How would we expect them to understand something that most publishing industry people struggle to grasp effectively?

In a statement published January 17, 2014 by Pamela Samuelson, Faculty Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, she referred to consensus during a 2013 conference entitled “Reform(aliz)ing Copyright for the Internet Age”, where the speakers concluded that “the formalities regimes of the past – the “traps for the unwary” – should not be reintroduced, but that a formalities regime of the future should take full advantage of the technological advancements that can functionally achieve the same (or better) results of past regimes without imposing a significant burden on creators or owners.” I like that phrase – “the traps for the unwary”. We were able to get rid of some of those “traps for the unwary” over the last few decades. Let’s not go backward.

But maybe this notion introduced by Ms. Pallante is not so much to shorten the term, but rather an attempt to motivate owners to keep records up to date for the benefit of the public. After all, she says, referring to this section, “We believe further consideration of this proposal…would serve to improve the functioning of our copyright system.” I sat down with a group of attorneys and key staff in the Copyright Office a few months ago and brought this very issue up. The response I received, although a little vague, seemed to confirm the thought that this is more about motivating heirs to keep records up to date, as well as streamlining Copyright Office operations, rather than promoting shorter terms.

Now, I believe in motivation. A carrot on a stick is not a bad strategy. But this seems more like a grenade on your butt. Rather than motivating copyright owners to move forward and receive a reward, they would be pushed from behind (blindly in many cases), and the result could be end of life (so to speak) without even realizing there’s a bomb back there. I think we can figure out a better way rather than introducing “traps for the unwary” with the consequences of “end of life”.

Now hang with me as I introduce one more thought into this discourse.

What truly motivates people? One of the obvious answers is money. If I move to a new home, I realize I need to update my information to people or companies who have my address on file. But the first ones I’m going to be motivated to update would be those who send me money. I don’t want to jeopardize that pipeline. I’ll then try and remember everyone else who has my information, but I’ll probably construct that list based on mail I’ve received in the last year or so; bills, memberships, notices, etc. The entities I’ll probably miss are the ones I haven’t heard from or dealt with in years. I’ve forgotten that they have my information, because we haven’t interacted with each other in ages.

Most song owners receive income for active songs on a somewhat regular basis. Those are the first “sources” they would be motivated to notify of a change in address, ownership, or payment methods. How often do these people correspond in any way with the Copyright Office?

The Copyright Office is an entity that attempts to keep valuable information up to date. However, it is not a “dynamic” entity in that it does not communicate with the copyright owners on a regular basis. While it may attempt to maintain dynamic and up to date records, much of what exists is “static” information. If this information is filed one time, and remains the same for 95 years, there is no need for further communications. The dynamic entities are those who ultimately make royalty payments to the owners. So would we be better served if this information was retained and maintained by a kind of “dynamic” entity? When the U.S. Copyright Office was first established in the late 1800’s, it was a central place where claims were recorded and physical copies of information were collected and maintained. Now that much of that information is digital and maintained “in the cloud”, do we still need to follow the old, physical, and static, model to maintain up-to-date ownership information?

A recommendation included in the statement published by Pamela Samuelson and The Berkeley Center for Law & Technology (mentioned above) suggests, “The Copyright Office should transition away from being the sole registry for copyrighted works and toward certifying the operation of registries operated by third parties, both public and private.” It further suggests the Copyright Office set the standards and specifications for such private registries, with the hope that this would create an environment of competition which could “lead to lower costs and innovations in registry design.” While I may not agree with everything Ms. Samuelson’s group suggests, this one is interesting.

The bottom line for me is the new copyright law should NOT introduce new “traps for the unwary” with the consequences of “end of life”, but rather open up the possibility of new “dynamic” registries, under the standards and specifications of the Copyright Office, and introduce new ways to motivate owners to keep registrations and information current. That’s more of a direction than a solution at this point, but that’s where the wisdom of the crowds comes into play.

What do you think?

John Barker

ClearBox Rights, LLC

© 2014 John Barker.  All rights reserved.  Information contained in this Blog is of a general nature and should not be considered or relied on as legal advice.  Any reader of this Blog who has legal matters related to information addressed in this Blog should consult with an experienced attorney. This Blog contains no warranties or representations that the information contained in it is true or accurate in all respects or that it is the most current or complete information on the subject matter covered. John Barker is President and CEO of ClearBox Rights, LLC.

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5 responses to “The Next Copyright Act – A Shortened Term?

  1. Pingback: Friday News Roundup #209 | Southern Gospel Journal

  2. With respect to a registration requirement for the remaining twenty (20) years of copyright protection, would this not be viewed as a formality that stands as a condition to copyright protection (at least for the remaining twenty years) in contravention of the Berne Convention Treaty prohibition on formalities for copyright protection?

    • Casey, good point. However, the Berne Convention actually only requires life plus 50 years, rather than the 70 years that the U.S., and according to the Copyright Office, over 80 other countries have adopted as well. Your point of this going against Berne’s “prohibition on formalities” is something we should to dive into. But, in Maria Pallante’s own words regarding this point (footnote #108 in “The Next Great Copyright Act”), she says, “This should not, as far as I can see, present insurmountable problems under international law. The Berne Convention requires a minimum term of life plus fifty years, defers to member states as to the treatment of their own citizens, and provides the term of protection of the country of origin for the works of foreign nationals.” But, since this is more her opinion, maybe that is an arguable point. – jb

      • John, Maria Pallante is correct about a member state’s treatment of its own citizens; however, this idea of requiring an additional registration for the remaining twenty (20) years of protection, the failure to do so resulting in the work going into the public domain sounds like a forfeiture of copyright for failure to accomplish a ministerial act is something that I believed the Berne Convention abhorred..

        Steve Bogard’s comment regarding the understanding of heirs about copyright is so true and a requirement like this imposed upon heirs is likely to result in additional forfeiture of copyrights.

        It took U.S. Copyright Law nearly a century to get rid of the two terms of copyright and the renewal concept and requirement; to accede to the Berne Convention Treaty; to provide of automatic renewal for pre-’78 copyrights. Why would anyone considering going backwards now; because it is inconvenient for some technology entity to do whatever they want with impunity. The level of respect for copyright in the U.S. is at an all time low; I do not think we need to do anything more to cheapen U.S. Copyrights.

  3. Most creators know 10% of what they need to know about their copyrights. Their spouses know 10% of that, and their heirs 10% of that. Your point about new “traps” is well taken. Steve Bogard

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