Monday, January 30, 2012

Why I won't sign that petition

A petition has been submitted to the White House requesting that copyright duration be rolled back to a maximum of 56 years. I have long called for a shorter term of copyright, but I won't be signing this petition. That is because too much has happened since 1976 for it to be reasonable to ask for a single 28+28 year copyright term as we had for all published works under the 1909 act.

An important feature of the 1976 Act was the suppression of the common-law right of first publication in unpublished works. Careless writers called this old common-law right a "common-law copyright," and some insisted that it was perpetual, but this was an exaggeration. It was more accurate to state that it was a right of first publication, not a copyright, and that it was of indefinite duration. It could, indeed, last generations if carefully preserved. The 1976 Act abolished this right and replaced it with a statutory copyright in unpublished works, based on the life of the author. This is one feature of the 1976 Act that I consider worth preserving rather than rolling back. The petition submitted to the White House makes no mention of the distinction between published and unpublished works, and the difficulties of defining a term for unregistered unpublished works.

Also, it makes more sense now to have different copyright terms for different classes of works. Computer software source code, in particular, should have a much shorter term than books or songs.

Finally, as Mike Masnick points out, it is Congress that makes the law. A petition to the President should recognize this.

I might support a petition worded something like this:
The undersigned respectfully request that the President consider the following proposals for the amendment of the U.S. copyright law, and if he deem any of them "necessary and expedient", that he recommend them to the Congress in accordance with Article II, section 3 of the constitution; or, if he find any of them not to be necessary or expedient, that he reply to this petition in writing giving his reasons.

1. We request that the duration of copyright in published works by known authors (except for computer software source code, treated separately below) be reduced to a term of the lifetime of the author plus fifty years, but in no case to exceed seventy-five years from first publication; and that the duration of copyright in published works-for-hire and anonymous and pseudonymous published works be reduced to a term of seventy-five years from first publication. This change would be made without regard for the duration of copyright in the law of any other country, and without regard for any "rule of the shorter term" in any foreign law. Any international agreements that conflict with the proposal, to which the U.S. is a party, would be re-negotiated to conform to the new shorter term.

2. We request that the duration of copyright in computer software source-code to be reduced to a term of 25 years from creation. The Patent and Trademark office, or the Copyright Office, would be empowered to issue rules for computing a presumed date of creation when it cannot be determined from the text of the source code itself.

3. We request that the law be amended explicitly to state that the author's exclusive rights, once they have expired by operation of the law, become rights that are vested in the general public. An explicit statement is necessary due to the contemptuous and scornful tone toward the concept of publici juris works that was used by the U.S. supreme court in its Eldred and Golan decisions.

4. We request that the United States withdraw from the Berne Union.

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