Do Time Limits On Copyright Protection Make Sense In Today’s Digital World?

The fifth annual Public Domain Day, which was celebrated on January 1st, marks the date when popular creative works become open to the public. The largest party is celebrated in Zurich. This year, Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, among other works, became open to the public in Europe. However, no published works are entering the public domain in the U.S. this year or next due to changes in the Copyright Act that extended copyright terms. In fact, the first publications will not enter the public domain in the U.S. until 2019. Anti-Copyright groups argue that shorter terms should apply giving the public more and more access to previously protected works. The length of copyright terms were extended in 1976 to life of an author plus 50 years or a single copyright of 75 years and again in 1998 to life plus 70 years or a single term of 95 years. These are significant extensions to copyright protection from the original term of 14 years plus a 14-year renewal option. Had the copyright term not been extended by the 1978 amendment, the following works would have become public this year: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. But for the 1998 term extension, the following works would have become public this year: Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby, Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

Therefore, the debate over the proper term for a copyrighted work is far from settled at this point. The emergence of the Internet, social media, and the digital world has further added to this debate as each provides more ways in which copyrighted works may be used.

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Darin M. Klemchuk *