Jamaican Government Steals Years Of Public Domain Works From Its People

from the jammin'-the-jammin' dept

Just under four years ago, Techdirt reported that Jamaica was planning something extremely foolish: a retroactive extension to its copyright term. As that article noted, when the European Union did something similar, the European Commission’s own figures showed that the move would cost the EU public around one billion Euros, and it was inevitable that the Jamaican people would also lose out if the move went ahead.

The fact that we’ve heard nothing for four years might have nourished the hope that the Jamaican government had come to its senses, and thrown out any plans it had to short-change its own people in this way. No such luck, of course. Indeed, a depressing post from the EFF reveals that the recently-passed legislation is down there with the worst:

The copyright term in Jamaica is now 95 years from the death of the author, or 95 years from publication for government and corporate works. This makes it the third-longest copyright term in the world, after Mexico and Côte d’Ivoire respectively with 100 and 99 years from the death of the author.

But there’s more:

The extension was made retroactive to January 1962. Besides being the year when Jamaica attained independence, 1962 also just so happens to have been the year when Jamaican ska music (a popular genre in its own right, but also a precursor of the even more popular reggae) burst onto the international music scene. The parallels with the extension of the U.S. copyright term in the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” are quite eerie. But, worse than what happened into the U.S., the retrospective effect of the law means that works that have already passed into the public domain in Jamaica are now to be wrenched back out again.

Under the new copyright law, foreign users of Jamaican copyrights are not bound by the extended copyright term, and yet Jamaicans are obliged to honor foreign copyrights for the full extended term. As the EFF notes:

all that this measure has accomplished is that citizens of Jamaica, a developing country, will be paying more money into Hollywood’s coffers, while Jamaica’s own rich cultural heritage draws in not a penny more in return.

What’s especially ridiculous here is that Jamaica’s own ska and reggae success owed much to the lack of copyright protections at the time. It was that lack of copyright enforcement that allowed the music to spread and become a global phenomenon.

This law is so bad that you might hope a future Jamaican government would simply repeal it. After all, there is no rule that says copyright can only be extended, never shortened — that it is subject to an irreversible ratchet. But imagine what would happen if this were proposed. Copyright companies and artists would be apoplectic, and doubtless start screaming that their rights and property were being being “stolen,” because something they had would be taken away from them under the change.

But the same logic applies to situations where copyright is extended, and the passage of works into the public domain delayed, especially if works that are already in the public domain are actively removed from it. In this case, the public has inarguably had something taken away from it — a right to use a huge number of works in any way without needing to obtain a license from somebody. And that, of course, is exactly what has happened in Jamaica, thanks to the introduction of this retroactive 45-year term extension. It’s a perfect example of real copyright theft, not the fake kind claimed so often by fans of a greedy intellectual monopoly that always wants more.

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Comments on “Jamaican Government Steals Years Of Public Domain Works From Its People”

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That One Guy (profile) says:


That was close, can you imagine if the corpses of all those musicians stopped getting their royalty payments? What possible incentive would they, or anyone, have had to create anything at all if you only got paid for it five decades after you died, rather than nine and a half?

It was close, but it looks like creativity has been saved, at least in Jamaica, for several more years.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Legal Question on Derivative Works

Not even that, I’m afraid. For example, a “robust” fair use policy might well cover short samples or non-commercial usage (depending on your use of the term, of course). If an artist has covered the entire song for commercial reasons, as an example, then even with fair use protections their song has gone from perfectly legal to absolutely infringing overnight.

Then, of course, how do the courts view the change in copyright ruling? If the retroactive nature of the copyright change is deemed to include royalties, a lot of people may well be in trouble despite having followed the law perfectly at the time they created their own work.

I’m sure we’ll find out before too long, and if nothing else this will be an interesting test given the history and worldwide appeal of Jamaican music.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Legal Question on Derivative Works

The lawyers will make lots of money.

Lots of people will make money. The politicians and judges have their bribes and will soon be buying new boats, planes, and real estate, renovating their palaces, and padding their retirement packages. Performance rights orgs will have a field day shaking down small business. The tax man may make some too, but considering how corrupt these people tend to be, likely not much (just like the bribed politicos who sell out for peanuts).

I doubt much will wind up enriching artists though. Good job, MafiAA!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Legal Question on Derivative Works

Good point, and it also bring up the question of orphaned works yet again. If something was legal upon its creation (or expected to be public domain by this point in time) and the rules change, whose responsibility is it to make sure it’s not suddenly infringing? Therein lies one of the major problems with retroactive changes in the law. After all, an artist can only deal with the law at the time he created his music.

I fear that the real answer will be – is the work owned by or deemed profitable for a major corporation? If not, they will likely be deemed illegal. Although, I hope someone with real knowledge turns up to explain things properly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe a maximum of 70 years

The Constitution says that copyright shall be for a limited time. I’m not sure how copyright lasting longer than 100% of the population is a limited time.

I like a maximum of 70 years.
14-year initial term.
4 non-automatically renewing 14-year terms.

28 years was the initial term for copyright in this country. I’d prefer to see 28 years, but that would cause apoplectic fits.

Just imagine if patents lasted as long as copyright. Any Henry Ford patents on the automobile would still be in effect.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Couldn’t the Jamaican artists who don’t agree with this just say they waive the extension for anything they personally created …

There was an idiot or two here just last week who refused to believe Dan Bull still controlled his copyrights once he told anybody who wanted to use his stuff to have at ’em for free.

Then again, he’s an artist/creator, so why would they care about his opinion? It’s not going to fill their wallets.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because a great many of those artists will not be in a position to do any such thing (they’re dead, they signed their copyrights over to a corporation, etc.).

Besides, this isn’t about whether individual artists agree. It’s about decades of history that has or should be public property being retroactively taken from the public. Even if all the artists agreed in some fashion, it’s still a gross violation of the agreement they had at the time the works were published.

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