October 31, 2006 · Lessig
So as noted here before, Britain is considering extending its copyright term for recordings from 50 years to 95 years — including both existing recordings and recordings in the future. (Remember, we increased our copyright term to “harmonize” with the Europeans; now the Europeans are increasing their copyright terms to “harmonize” with the US. Will this cycle end? Of course not.)
The ippr just released a very smart report about IP issues generally. It identifies well the errors in this pattern of extension. (The report is not free for downloading (a problem it didn’t note), but an executive summary is here.) And a new activist group in Britain, the UK Open Rights Group will soon release a short policy paper.
But the real problem with this debate is that the proponents for term extension are (1) sexy media figures who (2) only discuss the issue in well choreographed events that allow no real opposition to their views to be heard, while (3) the press never adequately covers events where the issue is properly, and adequately, addressed.
Exhibit one in support of the above: This piece by a favorite of this page, Andy Orlowski (remember his really nasty piece about my representing Hardwicke in the boychoir case, ending with: “Lessig has shown an ability to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory before.” No followup by Andy after the verdict.) Orlowski usually gets media issues right. But this piece is full of the most obvious errors. (E.g., he refers to “the estimates of economic Armageddon that term extenders propose – which may be £143m over 10 years, according to PriceWaterhouseCooper,” never pausing to actually analyze what this “Armageddon” is: The argument is that Britain hurts because a £143m tax is not imposed on the British people in order to benefit the likes of Sir Cliff. Talk about trickle down economics.)
But reporters just to report what they see. So I take it Orlowski didn’t see the full story. No surprise, since as he mentioned, the “panel discussing the issue was loaded with advocates for extending copyright terms, and only one dissenter.” Ah yes, Soviet style public policy discussion, again itself not remarked in Orlowski’s article.
The sexy will never stoop to debate this issue in a fair and balanced context so long as they get away with “debating” it in the sort of contexts they do. And they get away with it only so long as the press and politicians permit them to. So let’s let this permitting stop: Britain should demand a debate about these issues in a context in which both sides get a real and balanced opportunity to present the views.
I’m eager that an alternative get pushed into this debate. As mentioned before, MP Don Foster has suggested terms should be extended only for those who ask. For works whose copyright owners don’t ask, the copyright would pass into the public domain. I made a similar proposal to the Gowers Commission. It would be fantastic if Britain took the lead in this obvious compromise to an obviously mistaken policy — term extension for existing works.
Meanwhile, as a demonstration of the value of the public domain, if you’re not in the US, you can get access to this fantastic collection of 1500 LPs of classical music, in the public domain in Europe, but not in the US, digitized and made available by the EuropeanArchive. Don’t count on access to this anytime soon, United States: Nothing published will enter the public domain in the US through the expiration of a copyright term until 2019.