Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Copyright term again

Less than a week now until the EU Parliament votes on the latest copyright term extension proposals and I'm reminded, naturally, of Jefferson and Macaulay but also, more recently, a lecture by Sir Hugh Laddie in 1995 (the IP Institute Stephen Stewart Lecture), subsequently published in the European Intellectual Property Review journal the following year (Laddie, H. (1996), "Copyright: over-strength, over-regulated, over-rated?", European Intellectual Property Review, Vol. 18 No.5, pp.253-60.) Discussing the then relatively new EU copyright term extension directive of 1993, Laddie had this to say:
"As a result of the Term Directive, the copyright in the first category of works, that is to say, literary works and so on, is now life of the author plus 70 full years. This additional 20 years has been imposed throughout the Member States of the European Union to bring us into line with the domestic law of Germany. As is now familiar in copyright law, the process was one of leveling up the protection rather than levelling down. The result of this new term is that if, for example, a young computer programmer writes a new piece of computer software, he generates a monopoly which will normally last for over 100 years. Depending on his longevity, it may last more than 150 years. Similarly, if a politician writes letters or speeches which are of general historic interest, they also may be protected for a century or more. Indeed, if a modern-day architect were to design a new Albert Memorial, he would have the satisfaction of knowing that his copyright is likely to be sprightly and in the prime of life long after the concrete and steel of his architectural creation have started to crumble.

The question to be asked is: what justification is there for a period of monopoly of such proportions? It surely cannot be based on the principle of encouraging artistic creativity by increasing the size of the carrot. No one is going to be more inclined to write computer programs or speeches, compose music or design buildings because 50, 60 or 70 years after his death a distant relative whom he has never met might still be getting royalties. It is noticeable that this expansion of term is not something which has only occurred in the last decade. On the contrary, it has been a trend which has been in evidence for the whole of this century. Before the 1911 Act, the term of copyright in artistic works extended to seven years after the author's death. In 1911 this was extended to 50 years after death. The growth of term is in fact greater than these figures suggest. Life expectancy in 1910 was far shorter than it is now. The result is that a monopoly which was expected to last about four decades in 1910 should now be expected to last on average more than three times as long.

Indeed, I believe that the same criticism of excessive duration can be leveled at the 50-year flat term which applies to films, recordings and broadcasts. It may be possible to pick out a few creations of exceptional artistic or commercial merit where one could argue for lengthy protection - for example, the recordings of Rostropovich or the Beatles - but is it right that all copyright should be protected on the basis of what might be thought justified for the exceptional few? Furthermore, it is possible to argue that these long copyright terms are not necessary to protect the commercial exploitation of the works themselves. Most works protected by copyright are exploited very rapidly, if at all. This is so whether we are considering films and records or literary works such as computer software. Even books such as those that win the Booker prize are only commercially successful for a short time and then, to all intents and purposes, pass away. Yet the dead hand of copyright lingers on, in most cases serving no useful purpose.

Another of the problems with copyright law is that, unlike inventions protected by patent or designs protected by registration, the requirements for qualification are so low as to be virtually non-existent. Virtually any written material, any sketch and any film footage or sound recording is automatically protected. This has practical consequences. In Elanco v Mandops, the Court of Appeal accepted, as it had to, that a label of instructions placed on the side of a barrel of herbicide was a copyright literary work. No doubt depending on the youth of the literary genius who wrote it, the label will be protected for more than a century and perhaps for as long as a century and a half - certainly well beyond the date when for safety or commercial reasons the product has been removed from the market. So one of the troubles with copyright, then, is that it springs up to protect nearly every creation of the human mind, be it ever so trivial. As another member of the judiciary put it, the fact that our system of communication, teaching and entertainment does not grind to a standstill is in large part due to the fact that in most cases infringement of copyright has, historically, been ignored...

It would be possible to go on criticising the width of our copyright laws, but perhaps I have said enough. It might be more useful to inquire why our law has developed as it has. I have mentioned already the value and size of the industries which now believe they need extensive copyright protection to safeguard their income stream. They, quite properly, lobby for their interests. But who lobbies against them? There is no trade union of copyright infringers. Support for any limitation on copyright is easily portrayed as support for pirates - the usual pejorative global expression for infringers. It is depicted as support for the parasites of industry. Is it surprising, then, that the scope of protection gets ever wider? I suggest that the drafting of the legislation bears all the hallmarks of a complacent certainty that wider copyright protection is morally and economically justified. But is it?"
Laddie, who died in November last year, was widely respected round the world as an IP litigator, judge (he was a High Court judge between 1995 and 2005) and educator (Prof at ICL). It would be sad if the EU were to ignore his and countless other renowned IP experts advice and press ahead with this ill conceived measure.

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