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The New York Times
February 21, 1998
Congress is considering a bill to extend by 20 years the term of copyright protection. Since 1976, when copyright was last extended, the term has stood at the lifetime of the author plus 50 years or, in the case of corporate authors, a total of 75 years. Supporters of this bill, mainly the film industry, music publishers and heirs who already enjoy copyright revenues, argue that extending copyright will improve the balance of trade, compensate for lengthening life spans and make American protections consonant with European practice. But no matter how the supporters of this bill frame their arguments, they have only one thing in mind: continuing to profit from copyright by changing the agreement under which it was obtained.
There is no justification for extending the copyright term. Senator Orrin Hatch argues that the purpose of copyright is "spurring creativity and protecting authors." That is correct, and the current limits do just that. The proposed extension edges toward perpetual patrimony for the descendants, blood or corporate, of creative artists. That is decidedly not the purpose of copyright.
Copyright protects an author by granting him the right to profit from his own work. But copyright also protects the public interest by insuring that one day the right to use any work will return to the public. When Senator Hatch laments that George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" will soon "fall into the public domain," he makes the public domain sound like a dark abyss where songs go, never to be heard again. In fact, when a work enters the public domain it means the public can afford to use it freely, to give it new currency.
What vexes any discussion of copyright is the
idea of benefit. It is easy to see what the Disney Corporation will
lose when Mickey Mouse goes out of copyright, as he will within a few years.
It is harder to specify what the public will lose if Mickey Mouse does
not go out of copyright. The tendency, when thinking about copyright, is
to vest the notion of creativity in the
owners of copyright.
But artists, including those who work for places
like Disney, always emerge from the undifferentiated public, and the works
in the public domain, which means nearly every work of any kind produced
before the early 1920's, are an essential part of every artist's sustenance,
of every person's sustenance. So far, Congress has heard no representatives
of the public domain. It has
apparently forgotten that its own members are meant to be those representatives.