Since the signing of the Berne convention in 1886, intellectual property laws have seen more standardizations across the globe. Recent trends in trade agreements, especially those involving the United States, have brought back the discussion regarding just how much protection should be allotted towards Intellectual property. In this article, we will explore one aspect of Intellectual property, copyrights, and examine what kind of effects revising IP protections can have.
Just how long, is forever? Now this is a very difficult question to answer what with its ambiguous nature, open-endlessness and implicit complexity. But with regards to copyright laws, it might as well be that way.
Copyright law, in its simplest form, is protection provided by society to creators of play’s, films, books, musical numbers, dances routines or other forms of published/tangible expressions to the sole and exclusive right to enjoy these creations for a set amount of time. Just how long is this ‘set amount of time’? Here in Canada at least, Copyright protection extends to all work of an author to cover the entire lifespan of the author, plus an additional 50 years afterwards (concluding at the end of the existing calendar year). After which the production enters what is referred to as ‘Public Domain’ meaning anyone can use, adapt and/or interpret the work to their own hearts’ content without any legal repercussions of the original creator or the current owners of the material.
So, in instance of a beloved classic novel, Catcher in the Rye, which was written by J.D. Salinger almost 70 years ago in 1951, will still be under copyright protection until the year 2061 or 50 years after the passion of Salinger in 2010. That’s a 110 year wait after The Catcher in the Rye’s original publication before anyone’s unauthorised stage production/movie adaptation can take to the market without fear of being punished for stealing somebodies protected work of creation.
Though when a work enters the public domain does not necessarily mean that it is totally free to use. The adaptations of protected or public works are themselves, separate creative works and are too, protected by copyright. The most well-known example is set by Walt Disney’s earliest animated works. Fairy tale characters like Cinderella and Snow White are themselves in the public domain along with their respective stories, but the Disney adaptations from the 1930s and 50s are still copyright protected because they make use of an original medium, new songs and story beats that make them distinctive works compared to the original. If you want to perform a play about Cinderella (based off the original work) and score it with your own original music, or that of say Mozart then you are well within your rights to do so. However, if you want to include scenes from the 1950 Disney film and include Mozart recorded by The New York city orchestra dated in the 1980s, THEN you will have a problem.
So, what does this all mean exactly? This means that until the day a work enters public domain, they are essentially micro-monopolies to be used for continuing business from one original idea that could have been made more than a century prior. The benefits of these created works no longer benefit that of the original author, but instead the members of their estate or the respective owners of the copyright in question. Copyright is supposed to encourage the creation of more original works, not continuously incentives the expansion of protection on popular material until not even the grandchildren of their creators can enjoy them freely.
The original Canadian copyright acts, written in 1868 and 1875 both define the terms of protections being “…for the term of twenty-eight years, from the time of recording the copyright thereof in the manner hereafter directed:” Note how the mention of the living status of the creator is not mentioned in the original writing of the law. If this were in place today, that would mean that all original work created before the year 1991 would be free and open to be used by anyone. That’s not just films either, that is music, plays, art pieces, photography, anything that had once been protected under copyright now in the public domain and free for not just consumers to enjoy freely, but other artist to use and adapt into their own creative pieces. Companies like Netflix, Amazon or Spotify would not have to compete so heavily on what rights they had access to, but on how well their services provided their mediums to the consumers. This opens the door to further competition for services that can provide a way to enjoy works in the public domain in a more interesting way than what is currently offered.
But of course, artist will argue that copyright protects need to extend longer so that the time to reap the rewards of popular expressions is properly allowed to be enjoyed by the creators. And this does have good rationale behind it. The incentives for publishing one`s magnum opus diminish if the piece is no longer guided along by the original creator, who might take great joys and sharing their ideas with the rest of the world, as it can be drowned out rather easily through many different interpretations and adaptations of the source material. Anyone who has ever created anything artistically expressive will likely understand the hardship and difficulty it is to basically give up the creative direction of the works to be told and used by complete strangers.
Whether you agree with the ideas of the past, or with the increased protection given the copyright holders in the present, the current copyright system is here to stay. So as human life expectancy continues to expand in the coming years, will we see ever growing times for copyright protection? Will we come to a point in time when copyright is quite literally, indefinite in its protection? Will we one day live in a world where the concept of public domain only applies to works created long before the youngest generations grandparents were even bored? There are many different ramifications, drawbacks and benefits, opportunities and risks when dealing with the future of copyright. The potential is nearly limitless, especially if you are dealing with the concept of forever.
Government of Canada. (2019, July 26). Consolidated federal laws of Canada, Copyright Act
Government of Canada (1875) The copyright Act of 1875
Government of Canada (1867) Statues of Canada
The University of British Columbia. (2018, August 22). Research Guides: Copyright Educational Resources: Public Domain