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I tweeted yesterday!
To what am I referring when I invoke Methuselah? I’ve discussed the term of a copyright before on another blog, linking to a handy flowchart, but none of that is required reading. All you need to know is that the “term” of the copyright is how long it lasts, and I’m here to argue that it lasts far too long.
Congress’s authority to grant copyrights comes from the Arts and Sciences Clause.
[The Congress shall have Power t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;Article I, Section 8, Clause 8
The Sciences and Discoveries are the subject of patents, and the Arts and Writings are the subject matter of copyright, though these terms are being used more broadly than you’d ordinarily use them. For example, a sculpture is a “writing” in this context because sculptures can be copyrighted. I’m not going to get into that. You’ll fall asleep before I get to my point.
My focus is on “limited Times.” What does that even mean? From who’s perspective must the term of the copyright be limited? The artist? The general public at the time of creation? Humanity in general? An ant? Depending on your choice of perspective, “limited” could be a few minutes or a few centuries, and who’s to say that one interpretation of that vague phrase is better than another? (Spoiler alert: Me; that’s who.) Unfortunately, a 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court in Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003) seems to think it’s effectively unlimited. (Methuselah; remember?) I’m here to tell you why they’ we’re dead wrong.
By the way, you don’t get to blame this on Republicans or Democrats. Justice Ginsberg wrote the majority opinion, and Justice Scalia joined her. Though the two dissenters, Justice Stevens and Breyer, would be considered “liberal” by a layman’s standard, some conservatives would have joined their dissent. Fortunately, I’m smarter than all of them.
First, lets dive into some Constitutional text. The clause secures rights to “author[s],” not owners, for a limited time, and that’s an important distinction. Even if you sell your copyright, you’re always its author. Look up “copyright termination” for an example as to how this distinction can play out. So, if we’ve secured rights to authors for a “limited time,” then the perspective should be that of the author, not an ant or humanity in general, and not even a purchaser of the copyright (i.e., the owner). Thus, the term of a copyright shouldn’t be designed to outlive the author itself, even if he or she has sold their copyright. Otherwise, it’s not limited from the author’s perspective.
But that’s a bit philosophical, gets complicated when dealing with corporate authors (i.e., works made for hire), and subject to (barely) reasonable disagreement, so let’s further ground ourselves with history.
The first Copyright Act was passed in 1790, one year after the Constitution was deemed to be in effect. Therefore, the same people that debated and approved of the Arts & Sciences Clause did the same for that Copyright Act, and they granted authors copyrights with a term of 14 years eligible for renewal for another fourteen only “if, at the expiration of the said term, the author or authors, or any of them, be living” (emphasis added). The 1790 legislature was trying to keep copyrights from outliving their authors, and they’re the legislature that wrote the Arts & Sciences Clause. Who better to know what they meant? Of course, you can’t provide a guarantee in this regard, because unless you murder someone, etc., you don’t know when they’ll die. The mechanism that was used was the best way possible to minimize copyrights outliving their authors in a way that could be reasonably expressed in a statute, while recognizing that people’s dependence on a copyright might also outlive the author by a bit.
By 1831, members of Congress had lost sight of the original intent of the Founders. The Copyright Act was amended to grant a term of 28 years extendable for another 14, and in 1909, the term became 28 years extendable for another 28 years. For both of those acts, Congress had dropped the requirement that the renewal couldn’t outlive the author, as their heirs could still renew the copyright. While both of these laws should have been declared unconstitutional, even they show a clear intent to keep the term short enough that most people living during the time of a copyright grant would see the work pass into the public domain. That is, even with the 1909 statute’s possible 56-year term, a copyright born during my father’s lifetime would not have outlived him, and certainly would not have outlived the majority of the general public alive at that time. If someone grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, they should have been able to write fan fiction as adults without fear of getting sued.
Mickey Mouse is a Dick
Then Disney started lobbying Congress for longer copyright terms, and all hell broke loose. The current copyright term for a human author (as opposed to a corporate author) is life of the author plus 70 years, or 70 years beyond the life of the last living author for a joint work. Based on my interpretation, life plus anything is unconstitutional, but now the term is life of the author plus another person’s lifetime. This is insane. Note well that the purpose of intellectual property law isn’t to reward authors and inventors for a job well done. That reward is just a mechanism. It’s the means by which we encourage creation and invention. The purpose, however, is to make sure that the public has access to such subject matter. We employ the mechanism to limit affordability for a while so that creators and inventors have an incentive to create and invent in the first place, but the public must eventually gain full access to it. That’s the entire point of encouraging creation and invention in the first place. However, if I write a song today, no member of the current public, or even their children’s public, will ever see it in the public domain. Again, that’s an insane interpretation of the Arts & Sciences Clause cutting against its very purpose, so it simply cannot be the correct one.
We also see support for my interpretation in patent law. While the term of the patent has changed, it’s still only 17 years and not extendable. Thus, my interpretation is consistent with how patents were, and still are, treated. The fact that patent term is stricter is not because their legal foundations are different — they’re both grounded in the Arts & Science Clause — but rather the fact that patents represent a stronger intellectual property monopoly than copyrights. Still, the copyright monopoly is strong enough to warrant similar treatment.
But, But, But . . . .
What about trademarks? Trademarks are probably the weakest of intellectual property monopolies, so that alone justifies their indefinite term (only as long as you’re using them in commerce). Similarly, trade secrets are indefinite, but only as long as they remain secrets. However, there’s an additional consideration as to why these two forms of IP are treated differently: They originate in state law, and the federal government can regulate them only indirectly through the application of the Commerce Clause. I’m sure you’re dozing off, so I have no intention of digressing into that discussion. Just understand that these two forms of IP aren’t subject to the “limited Times” qualifier because they don’t arise from the Arts & Sciences Clause. If you’re still awake and would like to understand this a bit better, you can read my post on how state and federal law intersect on trademarks.
So that’s it. We have a problem, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Nevertheless, I’ll shout it from the rooftops: Copyright needs reform.
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Rob Bodine is a Virginia attorney focusing his practice on real estate and intellectual property law. He’s currently Virginia counsel with Cardinal Title Group, a Virginia title insurance and settlement company. Rob is also a licensed title insurance agent in Maryland and Virginia.
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