UK Green Party Speculates On Idea To Shorten Copyright To 14 Years... Leading To Mass Freakout

from the copyright-term-insanity dept

Last week, the Green Party in the UK got a bunch of attention when someone noticed its "Policies for a Sustainable Society" had put in a clause advocating for lessening copyright terms down to 14 years (which you may note is the same as it was originally in the Statute of Anne -- as well as under the original US copyright law).
By itself, it's not a crazy idea and, in fact, it's one that's been advocated by a variety of people as a better way to benefit the public. And, indeed, when questioned about it, someone from the Green Party said that this was based on the research of Rufus Pollock, who had argued that 14 years was an optimal time period for copyright length (we wrote about this years ago, and Pollock actually recommends 15 years based on his research). In short, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to argue for a 14-year copyright term (hell, patents only last 20 years, and there's plenty of debate on how that's way too long as well). Furthermore, as we've discussed plenty of times, back when the US had terms of 28 years and then you could renew for another 28 years, the vast majority of copyright holders (outside of movie copyright holders), chose not to renew, suggesting that there was little benefit in copyright terms so long:
Either way, it appears that the whole thing was overblown. As Tom Chance (the former Green Party spokesperson for Intellectual Property) explained in great detail, those Policies for a Sustainable Society are decided democratically by members of the party, and are a more long-term vision, rather than short-term plans. And, more importantly, the actual plan was for it to be "life plus 14":
The vision then goes on to propose “generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”. By this, we mean that rather than the current maximum of 70 years after the creator’s death, it should only be 14 years after their death. Unfortunately, as written, this appears a bit ambiguous and has caused confusion, so it needs clearing up!
Honestly, this doesn't make much sense either. If, as the Greens claimed, they were basing the plan on Rufus Pollock's research, then "life plus 14 years" doesn't fit at all. Frankly, some of this sounds like a cop-out by a Green Party that had no idea what it was advocating. That doesn't necessarily speak well of the Party.

Either way, a bunch of folks absolutely freaked out over the idea that the Greens might support such a shortening of copyright length, with laughable claims like "how are we supposed to earn a living?"
I don't know, but in most jobs, you don't get to keep earning money off the work you did a year ago, let alone 14 years ago.

Either way, as the chart above shows, it appears that the true economic life of most books was at least well short of 28 years. Perhaps there's a magic number between 14 and 28 (again, Pollock suggests it's 15), but it hardly seems like "life plus 14" is really going to create any real hardship for anyone other than the likes of Disney or other multinational corporations.

Alas, none of it really matters, as the confused position of the Green Party quickly resulted in the party backing down and admitting that it will now review its copyright policy. Going back to Tom Chance's post, he gives a reasonable discussion as to why excessive copyright terms are a bad idea, and also highlights that the nature of copyright in the UK and the US was always about benefiting the public, not providing a "natural right" for creators to earn a living.

This is something that all too frequently gets lost in the copyright debates. Copyright system supporters insist that copyright is like a form of welfare: a right to earn money. That's why you see these ridiculous and misleading campaigns lately about "fair compensation" for creators. But that's ridiculous. Many artists make no money at all because no one likes what they produced. Or not enough people. Copyright gives you one way to earn some money, but it was never supposed to be the only system by which creative people made money. The fact that some act as if it's a natural right, and some sort of welfare program that is required to "earn" them a "living" is a perversion of history, and it makes having honest rational discussions about the optimal setup of copyright nearly impossible.

Reader Comments

The First Word

"What about authors"

What about them? Unless you have figures to the contrary, most authors who make money will make it within 14 years of writing a novel, and most people who advocate s reduction are open to an extension bring granted (limited in part of the author, not infinite on behalf of the publisher). Besides, why should copyright be beholden to one small part of one industry? Most authors don't get published at all, or didn't until self publishing became realistic on a mass level (for good or ill).


"People here at times seem to advocate a return defining copyright terms as was the case until 1978"

Some advocate a compromise based on current measures, others complete abolishment, and everything in between. It's a wider discussion than some shills would have you believe.

"but I have not the slightest doubt that even if this was to occur a hue and cry wouls almost immediately begin complaining that any term was far too long and destroying "culture"."

Many would also argue that the culture created before 1978 was far superior before corporations were able to demand effectively unlimited terms. Others would argue that even 14 years is too long given the current climates of both changing tastes and wide distribution options - that if you can't sell enough to make a living within 14 years, you're not making something worth buying. I'm not in either of those camps, but I don't hear cries to protect small businesses who didn't make money on their latest production run - we just accept that they go out of business.
—PaulT

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2015 @ 8:18am

    Time and Money

    You will never find the "right" amount of time for a copyright, either in the sense of pleasing the various constituencies or in the sense of what is appropriate for a particular work. The copyright in a book written in 2001 may well have economic value today. Your state-of-the-art website design from 2001? None. So instead of focusing solely on time, why not bring back copyright renewals but with a use-in-commerce requirement (as with trademarks)?

    For example, if I write a book and sell $10k of books every year for fourteen years, I should be allowed to renew my copyright and keep that revenue stream. As with a trademark, let me file a sworn statement showing my continued use in commerce, on the basis of either direct sales or licensed use, with some minimum requirement. Also as with trademarks, sham transactions would be disallowed. The copyright would then be renewed but go to the public domain after that period expires.

    But if I write a book and sell $10k of books every year for four years and then sell only a few copies for the next ten years, the copyright office should refuse my renewal. First, I probably no longer care about the copyright and wouldn't seek to renew it in the first place, so the system would be self-correcting (as it used to be). Second, if I did care, I would not be able to make the required showing of continued use in commerce and so the renewal application would be refused. Either way, the book would go into the public domain.

    The benefits are two-fold. First, I was given 14 years to find a way to make revenue from my copyrighted material. If it takes me 12 years to get it off the ground, so be it. I just have it get it going and keep it going at the renewal time. Second, if I can't make it happen after 14 years, maybe someone else can. But there is no reason to allow me to protect something that I am no longer using in commerce, whether through inability or lack of market.

    Finally, by allowing copyrights to expire, I will be incentivized to create new works because I must to keep revenue coming. Hunger is a powerful motivator. And if my existing works are still popular after 28 years, letting them become public domain might make people willing to buy my new works. Someone who might not have paid for books one and two in my series might be willing to read them for free down the road. Now, my audience has expanded for the rest of the books in the series that I am motivated to create because of copyright expiration.

    P.S. On a side note, isn't it ironic how everyone observes the shortening of product lifecycles, etc., in our modern world, yet we need to extend the 1701 Statute of Anne's time period to infinity?

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