May 16, 2003  ·  Lessig

About a month ago, I started sounding optimistic about getting a bill introduced into Congress to help right the wrong of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. I was optimistic because we had found a congressperson who was willing to introduce the bill. But after pressure from lobbyists, that is no longer clear. And so we need help to counter that pressure, and to find a sponsor.

The idea is a simple one: Fifty years after a work has been published, the copyright owner must pay a $1 maintanence fee. If the copyright owner pays the fee, then the copyright continues. If the owner fails to pay the fee, the work passes into the public domain. Based on historical precedent, we expect 98% of copyrighted works would pass into the public domain after just 50 years. They could keep Mickey for as long as Congress lets them. But we would get a public domain.

The need for even this tiny compromise is becoming clearer each day. Stanford’s library, for example, has announced a digitization project to digitize books. They have technology that can scan 1,000 pages an hour. They are chafing for the opportunity to scan books that are no longer commercially available, but that under current law remain under copyright. If this proposal passed, 98% of books just 50 years old could be scanned and posted for free on the Internet.

Stanford is not alone. This has long been a passion of Brewster Kahle and his Internet Archive, as well as many others. Yet because of current copyright regulation, these projects — that would lower the cost of libraries dramatically, and spread knowledge broadly — cannot go forward. The costs of clearing the rights to makes these works available is extraordinarily high.

Yet the lobbyists are fighting even this tiny compromise. The public domain is competition for them. They will fight this competition. And so long as they have the lobbyists, and the rest of the world remains silent, they will win.

We need to your help to resist this now. At this stage, all that we need is one congressperson to introduce the proposal. Whether you call it the Copyright Term Deregulation Act, or the Public Domain Enhancement Act, doesn’t matter. What matters is finding a sponsor, so we can begin to show the world just how extreme this debate has become: They have already gotten a 20 year extension of all copyrights just so 2% can benefit; and now they object to paying just $1 for that benefit, so that no one else might compete with them.

If you believe this is wrong, here are two things you can do: (1) Write your Representative and Senator, and ask them to be the first to introduce this statute; point them to the website, and ask them to respond. And even more importantly, (2) blog this request, so that others who think about these issues can get involved in the conversation.

I have given this movement as much as I can over the past four years, and I will not stop until we have reclaimed the public domain. Stay tuned for more litigation, and more ideas from Creative Commons. But please take these two steps now.

  • Alexander (Sasha) Wait

    I do all my work on Debian GNU/Linux and give “Powerpoint” presentations from a Debian laptop running OpenOffice. My own experience– also conversations with Gerry Sussman, his students and colleagues– has convinced me that protecting the �creative commons� is the decisive factor in actually benefiting from technology (as a society or as selfish individuals). I�ve said as much– sometimes too forcefully– to anyone that will listen.

    I�ve posted this on my Blog and will certainly help in whatever way that I can�

    PS. I�m in the process of assembling a Reader (on Mind, Soul and Reality) and I hope to convince the various copyright holders to license their work with a CC license. Thanks for making the licenses available!”

  • John Kealy

    As far as getting someone to support this shouldn’t /couldn’t we work with some one who has some pull in congress? Nacy Pelosi is now the minority leader and as she represents SF she could be made to realized that lots of Bay Area folks work in industries adversely effected by the Sonny Bono Act.

    Pelosi’s Office number is (202)225-4965

  • Jasper Phillips

    It’s tough to find someone principalled enough to stand up for
    something as untelegenic and virulently opposed as even this
    meager copyright reform — and even if you find such a congressman, they are likely to be tied up with more serious
    problems in the US government. :-(

    Still, you might try Peter DeFazio

    I’ve emailled him a request that he read your blog entry, as
    I believe he may support such a bill.


  • Mike Liveright

    I have suggested that Congresswoman Eshoo,
    our representative, hold a discussion in early June, with Lessig and Friedman, studying this act and then if it makes sense to her to introduce it.

    Lets see if she is interested in sponsoring this bill.

    I would also like to have feedback from the copyright people as to why they object as it will allow them to use much of the 50+ year old material also without the time, bother, and expense of tracking down the ownership.

  • Carl Simpson

    This legislation sounds like a good idea. I do have a question: Wouldn’t paying a maintenence fee constitute a “formality” under the Berne Treaty? Since the entire GATT/TRIPS amendments were ostensibly enacted to do away with formalities as a requirement for copyright protection, the maintenence fee strikes me as setting up a new formality in order to secure protection – though the apparent limitation of reproduction rights to libraries and archives counters that argument somewhat.

  • Jason Buberel

    For a sample letter you can borrow from or re-use, as well as the addresses for the federal representatives for portions of Santa Clara County California (Silicon Valley), see the link below:

    Support Lawrence Lessig!

    Great work Professor Lessig. Keep up the fight!


    PS Donate some monety to The EFF while you’re at it.

  • randy

    I’ve contacted my Congressman, Todd Akin of Missouri, about this idea. I think its compelling and it is one of the few ideas I’ve seen in the IP arena recently that I can fully support.

    While I’m a more staunch proponent of copyrights, I think that the concepts of requiring renewal rights and a “protection” of the IP is a great one. If it ceases to be protected, then it should fall into the public domain and should benefit all of us.

  • David Mattison

    Canada’s Parliament introduced legislation to legitimize the merger of the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada that was announced in the fall 2002. Buried in the legislation is an amendment to Canada’s Copyright Act that will extend copyright on unpublished works where the author died between, I think, 1929 and 1949. The amendment is intended on changing an earlier amendment that came into force in 1998 (and there was intense debate around it) and which would have seen unpublished works by authors who died before 1948 pass into the public domain on December 31, 2003. Obviously, Canada is now following the Disney Corp. in its efforts to control that very intelligent mouse. Unpublished works by authors such as Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily Carr and many others, if this amendment is passed, will be protected until 2018. While proponents of the amendment cite L.M. Montgomery’s work as an example where the literary heirs (I’m not sure if this means actual family) have yet to fully mine her unpublished materials, in the case of Emily Carr, there is no family to benefit, so only museums, archives and private sector entities will continue to profit from her unpublished literary efforts such as letters or manuscripts.

  • Curt Siffert

    I hope it wouldn’t be turned around as reason to further extend copyright expirations.

  • John Mark Walker

    What happened to Zoe Lofgren? This is disturbing news if she’s backing out.

  • Garson Poole

    Imagine the following alternative approach. A library digitizes all its copyrighted and non-copyrighted content. The content is made available to users over the internet through an “electronic check-out” process. Only one electronic replica of an item can be checked out at one time. Further, the actual physical copy of an item can not be accessed unless the electronic replica is not currently checked out. Electronic replicas are deleted from patrons computers or e-book readers during the check-in process.

    Even with these strong access restrictions, I think that the utility and popularity of these electronic libraries would be enormous. Broad and deep content collections could be made widely available. Powerful search techniques would be possible after digitalization.

    Unfortunately, consider what happened to when they tried to make electronic replicas of music available to individuals who already owned the original recordings. They lost the resulting court battle. It seems supportive legislation is required to create these libraries. If I own a book I should be able to loan it. In the electronic age, if I own a book I should be able to make an electronic replica and loan either one instance of the replica or one physical copy of the book.

  • Jack Johnson

    Just wrote my congresswoman, FWIW.

    I also just had this funny mental image. I saw Matrix Reloaded Monday night, and there’s a scene with Neo flying at ludicrous speed, with pretty much everything not tied down sucked along with him in his wake.

    My vision was of Mickey as Neo, with all the abandoned intellectual property as his own personal detrius-wake.

  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    From my personal perspective, the Edlred Act is really
    a bad idea. It only will continue to help the copyright term
    to expand infinitely. That is because the act does not
    exert any negative influence on the copyright term.
    People in future (after 2010) will say to Congress, “Look
    we have the Eldred Act passed in 2010, please increase
    copyright term to 500 years so that we can have protection
    for 500 years as long as we pay the maintenance fee.”

    Let’s forget about the Eldred Act. We already have the
    option of dedicating our works to the public domain before
    copyright term expires. Moreover, it is gratis. Creative
    Commons has a way to help people dedicate their works
    to the public domain. As more people become familiar
    with Creative Commons, few more people will dedicate
    their works to the public domain.

    Joseph Pietro Riolo

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions in this
    post in the public domain.

  • Lessig

    Mr. Riolo,
    Let me try to persuade you to the contary.

    One big reason the Court went against us is that the Court didn’t see what the value of the public domain is. And one big reason it didn’t see the value of the public domain is that is has been denied to us for about 40 years.

    The real way to counter this view is by demonstrating how powerful and valuable and important the public domain is. But we can’t do that unless we actually have a public domain.

    The Eldred Act would create a public domain. It wouldn’t be everything, but it would be 98%. And then, when the question gets raised again, someone will have a much better chance to make the argument we tried to make: That terms have to be limited because the public domain is so important.

  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    Hi Mr. Lessig,

    Thank you for your feedback.

    There is a saying that for every deliberation we make,
    we must consider its impact on the next seven generations.
    While I can see a positive consequence of the Eldred Act
    which is that it will expire the copyright protection much
    earlier and thereby return the copyrighted expressions to
    their original status which is the public domain, I also can
    visualize a possible undesirable consequence of the act.
    The undesirable consequence is that the act provides
    positive reinforcement for the continuance of copyright
    protection and in turn it will increase the copyright term.
    In the long run, the benefit of shorter copyright protection
    due to the lack of maintenance fee will be easily dwarfed
    by the increase in copyright term.

    I would be very wrong. I am not totally convinced that the
    act will produce more benefit than harm. I am afraid that
    the copyright holders will use the act, if it becomes a law, as
    a valid excuse for increasing copyright term.

    When you introduced the idea about the Eldred Act few
    months ago, Creative Commons did not have the project
    known as the Founders� Copyright back then. Now that
    Creative Commons provides it, I think that this makes
    the act irrelevant.

    At the forum called �Creativity and the Public Domain: Does
    Copyright Protect Too Much or Too Little?� in New York City
    last month, Marybeth Peters said that she did not agree with
    the Eldred Act because it will not work with the treaties on
    copyright and it will make difficult for the poor to pay the
    fee. There was a person in the audience who thanked her
    for speaking up for the poor. The lay people will see the
    Eldred Act as favoring the rich and big corporations who
    can afford the maintenance fee for many millions of works.

    I wholly agree with you that we need to increase the value
    of the public domain. But, it is still premature to say that
    the Supreme Court does not see the value in the public
    domain. For example, the Court said that D.C. Circuit went
    too far in saying that copyright is immune from challenges
    under the First Amendment. We will find out soon how it
    will rule in the case Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox
    Film Corp. Also, we will see whether it will grant certiorari
    to Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc. v.
    Peter Veeck and if so, how it will rule in that case.

    The key to increase the value of the public domain is
    education. People like you did a very excellent job in
    increasing the awareness of the dangers of expansive
    copyright among the population. At the same time, you
    also increased the awareness of the public domain. It will
    take some time for the importance of the public domain to
    permeate through the population. Creative Commons
    provides two ways (Founders� Copyright and dedication to
    the public domain) to actualize the importance of the public
    domain. I believe that this speaks louder than the Eldred
    Act and eventually makes it irrelevant.


    Joseph Pietro Riolo

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions in this
    post in the public domain.