It’s a position that may come as a surprise to long time observers. Major record labels and movie studios not expressing interest in extending the terms of copyright.
It’s been a position by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) for decades: keep extending copyright terms. Arguments include helping out descendant’s of artists. A counterargument by opponents has been that it’s more about enriching the major corporations more than helping descendant’s. While there has been plenty of research that suggests that lengthening copyright terms does little to help the overall economy, the major studios and labels forged ahead anyway.
This debate extends decades to the point where all I ever heard from these organizations is to just keep extending copyright laws. Now, after generations of extending copyright laws to the point where we are sitting at life plus 95 years, it seems that these organizations are finally softening their stance on the length of copyright law. Arstechnica obtained comments both from the RIAA and MPAA and it is raising eyebrows:
Until the 1970s, copyright terms only lasted for 56 years. But Congress retroactively extended the term of older works to 75 years in 1976. Then on October 27, 1998—just weeks before works from 1923 were scheduled to fall into the public domain—President Bill Clinton signed legislation retroactively extending the term of older works to 95 years, locking up works published in 1923 or later for another 20 years.
Will Congress do the same thing again this year? To find out, we talked to groups on both sides of the nation’s copyright debate—to digital rights advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge and to industry groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. To our surprise, there seemed to be universal agreement that another copyright extension was unlikely to be on the agenda this year.
“We are not aware of any such efforts, and it’s not something we are pursuing,” an RIAA spokesman told us when we asked about legislation to retroactively extend copyright terms.
“While copyright term has been a longstanding topic of conversation in policy circles, we are not aware of any legislative proposals to address the issue,” the MPAA told us.
Presumably, many of the MPAA’s members would gladly take a longer copyright term if they could get it. For example, Disney’s copyright for the first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, is scheduled to expire in 2024. But the political environment has shifted so much since 1998 that major copyright holders may not even try to extend copyright terms before they start to expire again.
If these organizations do follow through and not pursue extending the length of copyright laws, it will mean that the public domain in the US will once again begin to expand. This hasn’t been seen in a very long time and, as such, may seem like a foreign concept to some.
Digital rights advocates have long fought against copyright term extensions. Some of the reasons include the ability for new artists to remix old works legally, thus allowing future creators to build on works in the past. So, as such, the news of the major lobbying organizations expressing little interest in extending the length of copyright terms is being welcomed with open arms.
From an international perspective, this could have political implications for major trade agreements. Trade agreements such as CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement), and others aggressively push for extending copyright terms in countries all over the world. The move in the US to not push for longer copyright terms does leave an opening for people to say that if the US is unwilling to pursue lengthening copyright laws, why should other countries?
No one wants to cast doubt on the news because it holds the promise of the major studios and labels finally turning a corner on something and heading in a positive direction. However, during my years as a reporter for ZeroPaid, I’ve seen something like this before.
In 2008, my former colleague, Jared Moya, covered the announcement that the RIAA intends on ceasing their litigation campaign. This after about a decade of the RIAA filing mass lawsuits against alleged filesharers. The litigation effort at the time showed little in the way of slowing copyright infringement on filesharing networks back then. The announcement at the time was highly welcome news because it sounded like the RIAA was finally turning a corner, realizing that suing teenagers for hundreds of thousands of dollars isn’t the most productive thing in the world to do.
As it turned out, the skeptics were proven right. Several months later, the RIAA was found to have continued filing lawsuits against alleged filesharers.
So, as much as it pains us to say, we’ve seen something like this before. A lot of people will be very happy to see the halt of extending copyright laws. In fact, the news is very exciting for some. Unless works actually do start falling into the public domain, there’s always that possibility that the actions of these organizations could change.