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 http://eldred.cc, 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.