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Copyright Terms in the TPP: Too Long, or Way Too Long?

Simon Lester

Last December, there was an excellent policy forum here on whether copyright, an issue which I previously knew little about, has become “unbalanced.” It seems that copyright terms in the United States have increased significantly over the years: simplifying the issues a bit, these terms went from 14 years (with the possibility of a 14 year renewal) as set by the first Congress, to 28 years (with a 28 year renewal) in 1909, to life of the author plus 50 years in 1976, to life of the author plus 70 years today.

I don’t know how you are supposed to come up with a “correct” figure for the term of copyright. It all feels like instinct more than science. The earliest time periods – 28 years total or 56 years total, taking into account renewal – seem reasonable. Even life of the author seems reasonable. But life of the author plus 50 years? Or life of the author plus 70 years? That seems excessive.

I bring this up because as part of various trade negotiations, the U.S. government is now pushing others to adopt ever longer terms. One of the big trade talks these days is the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains how the TPP would affect copyright terms:

New Zealand, a party to the TPP negotiations, currently has a copyright term of the author’s life and an additional 50 years for literary works. Another TPP member, Malaysia, has a copyright term of life plus 50 years for “literarymusical or artisticwork.” Canada, which is just entering negotiations, has an even shorter term of just 50 years for fixed sound recordingsPursuant to the current TPP terms [pdf], all of these countries would be required to extend their terms and grant companies lengthy exclusive rights to works for no empirical reason.

There are lots of good things in trade agreements, and I’m reluctant to oppose them. But it gets very frustrating to see them used for purposes other than free trade, especially when those purposes are so problematic. It seems to me that the appropriate focus of copyright policy right now would be a domestic debate that focuses on how long copyright terms should be, rather than an attempt to push our own excessive terms on our trading partners.