Most of us probably think that our term (length) of copyright protection is too long. We got there via Sonny Bono’s Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1998.

How long is too long? The Electronic Frontier Foundation (via The Digital Reader) sends us this story reporting on a wild extension of the copyright term by Jamaica’s Parliament. Their term is now the third longest in the world. The champions are Mexico at 100 years, and Côte d’Ivoire at 99. Jamaica’s term is now 95 years from the death of the author. Our own 70 year term, which many including the EFF, see as way too long, is likely soon to be enforced on signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Wikipedia has a list of terms of copyright by nation. 50 years seems to be common, though 70 is the favored number in Europe and USA. What would be the ideal number? — A silly question the answer to which depends on where you are standing. If you can trace your descent directly to William Shakespeare, you might be forgiven for wishing that copyright protection was eternal. It’s nice to think you can sit back and gather royalties and permissions fees based upon what your great-great-grandfather did. How useful to the family is a restrictive attitude towards granting permission for reprinting? I remember doing an anthology of 20th century poetry in which the works of T. S. Eliot were severely underrepresented because we couldn’t afford to pay the permissions fees (in other words our expected sale wasn’t large enough to generate sufficient income to pay for more than one or two poems). I don’t really see how that benefitted the family. Of course a cheap anthology containing most of Eliot’s work would reduce the sale of the copyrighted editions, but there’s a sense in which having your work appear in anthologies helps build demand. After all you don’t want to create the idea that the history of 20th century poetry can be told with little reference to your guy.

Of course there are kids who never worked because their grandfather founded a gigantic oil company. Nobody suggests that they should be forced to divest after 70 years. Would the world be a better place if they were? I don’t actually see how it would be any worse, though it’s probably impossible to assert honestly that it’d be better. Of course a company, while it does have a significant intellectual property component, is not something you can just drop out there with an assumption that it’ll continue functioning. We’d get into rules for divvying up shares etc. etc. which just get us back into fat-cattery of a different sort.

Copyrights are different: nobody’s enjoyment of the product is governed by the copyright status of the book. The differences in your experience of reading Longbourn by Jo Baker and Pride and Prejudice are not governed by Jane Austen’s being in the public domain while the “downstairs” version is copyright. Arriving in the public domain has no effect, other than removing the income stream (if any) from the author’s descendants. The official justification for granting (a limited) copyright in the first place is to encourage authorship, nevertheless our laws permit quotation in reasonable (fair use) measure, as well as parodies, adaptations and new versions of various restricted kinds. Should you however be inspired to publish your own story about the servants at Longbourn, take care. In a way that angle has now been reserved for Ms Baker and her ultimate heirs. Of course this isn’t the way it was meant to be, nor is it the way the law is really written; but owners of successful copyrights tend to have deeper pockets that aspiring writers and can threaten law suits. Look at the case of The Wind Done Gone and ponder.

This discussion at The Passive Voice of an Authors Guild memo about terms of contracts is interesting in this context. The Authors Guild, nobody’s favorite these days, refers to “the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever”. They are of course complaining about publishers who buy these rights from authors — they want contracts to be for shorter periods, not copyright — but surely the one argument is hard to make without it dragging in the other. In any case, publishers’ contracts are merely a commercial agreement between the creator and the distributor of a product. Yes, yes, it isn’t a fair argument: most authors want to get published; most publishers know there’ll be another manuscript round the corner. But the distributor’s power has been reduced in recent years, though surely it’s unreasonable optimistic to suggest that “it’s long past time for publishers to offer a fair deal” and to think that such exhortation has any chance of affecting anything. If I’m a fat-cat publisher, and (despite the threat of self-publishing) think I hold all the cards, why would I pay any attention to the Authors Guild’s wishes? It’ll take some big-selling authors rejecting these terms to make any change, not the Authors Guild shouting the odds.

I happen to agree that some sort of reversion clause should be included in contracts. But I just don’t see any mechanism, other than market forces, that can get it in there. Does anyone think legislation is an option? Of course one of these days our copyright laws will once again be revised. I continue to wish for a separation between expensive, commercially created properties like movies, where protection may be justifiable, and the more modest book. What about a book copyright term of 25 years or the life of the author, whichever is longer, with a similar term on grants of license to publishers?