Does the expansion of copyright laws help or hurt consumers?

Does the expansion of copyright laws help or hurt consumers?

The question about whether copyright laws help or hurt consumers is another big debate.

Advocates for the continued expansion of copyright laws argue that large copyright holders like Disney, Viacom, and major motion picture studios and record labels are an extremely important part of the U.S. economy. As the U.S. continues to move away from manufacturing, its intellectual property has grown more and more important to protect and enforce as a source of jobs and revenue for American firms.

Several smaller debates about the rationales for expanding or limiting the terms of  copyright laws may be relevant to the general public:

(1) Increased life expectancy makes it only fair to creators that their ownership interests should be extended.

(2) Extending term limits encourages offshore production of competing products

(3) Private collections are devalued by the uncertainty of term limits

(4) Limiting the term of copyright would result in fewer newer works being created.

(1) Increased life expectancy makes it only fair to creators that their ownership interests should be extended.

One major rationale for the continued extension of copyright laws is the practical fact that life expectancies over the last 250 years have been gradually rising. It seems natural that the law should change to accommodate the fact that creators are living longer and should get protection for an equivalent amount of their estimated lifetime as the Founding Fathers originally envisioned.

Critics of this increased life expectancy argument argue that life expectancies have risen from about 35 years in 1800 to 77.6 years in 2002. Life expectancies during that period of time have doubled, but the term of copyright protection has increased threefold. Initially the term of copyright protect under the Copyright Act of 1790 was 28 years. Now the term is close to three times that. Moreover, while the terms of copyrights have been extended supposedly due to increased life expectancy, the terms of patents have not been similarly extended. Instead, critics argue that patents adequately reward investment in the field with their short 20-year term.

(2) Extending term limits encourages offshore production of competing products.

Many argue that the Copyright Act encourages "offshore production." Derivative works could be created outside the United States in areas where copyright would have expired, but US law would prohibit US residents from accessing these works.

For example, a movie of Mickey Mouse playing with a computer could be legally created in Russia and children worldwide could possibly benefit from watching it, but the movie would could not be imported into the US because of copyright, thus deprivingAmerican children. Similarly, the first Winnie-the-Pooh book was published in 1926 and would have been in the public domain in 2001. This economically positive activity of producing/consuming these products could take place by persons in America, except that copyright continues to protect the characters and stories—even though it no longer protects the book itself..

(3) Private collections are devalued by the uncertainty of term limits.

Eric Eldred is an example of someone who collected copyrighted works that would soon "go out of copyright," intending to rerelease them once the copyright expired, lost the ability to do so for an additional 20 years when the Sonny Bono Act was passed. The ensuing court case, where Eldred argued that this was not fair was Eldred v. Ashcroft.

(4) Limiting the term of copyright would result in fewer works being created.

Advocates for extending terms limits make the common sense argument that if the large producers and distributors think that extensions of the terms are necessary and Congress does not provide those necessary changes, then those producers and distributors eventually will be forced to create fewer works. Moreover, their works will be less ambitious because they will be both more risk averse and more inclined to try to recoup costs in the short term rather than the long term. Producers and distributors creating less work would be bad for the economy and bad for society.

Opposing this argument, some believe it relies on the false assumption that copyright exists to make the creation of new works possible. As explained many times earlier, the authors of the United States Constitution evidently thought that unnecessary, instead restricting the goal of copyright to merely “promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts.

Moreover, many new derivative works can’t be made because they are barred by the constantly lengthening copyright terms. Many artists would love to remix, mashup, or build upon older works, but they can’t do so confidently (without obtaining a license) when works remain outside of the public domain. Instead, they have to rely on the useful, but often problematic “fair use” defense.

Even if someone has the money to pay for a license, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to find the owner of an old copyright to purchase a license, especially when considering that the only works assuredly in the public domain were published before 1923. This excludes almost all of popular music recordings and commercial films.

For all of these reasons, they argue that a rich, continually replenished public domain is necessary for continued artistic creation.

As you can see, the question about whether consumers are helped or harmed by copyright extensions will probably always be actively debated, just like the question of who is hurt by copyright infringement.

If you are a journalist, policy maker or just an interested citizen who has questions about the history of copyright term extensions and the ongoing debate between copyright policy makers, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.

Find additional articles by