On May 31, 1790, George Washington signed the first copyright law, Copyright Act of 1790, which extended copyright protection to “the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books ” who were citizens or residents of the United States “for the term of fourteen years from the recording the title thereof in the clerk’s office .” The copyright could be extended for an additional fourteen years, if the author was still living and recorded the work in a similar manner. The entire Copyright Act of 1790 was less than 2 pages long, compared to the current 300 pages of federal statutes and regulations related to copyright law.
Some people, like Jeremy Byellin, argue that the copyright law needs to be complex because “the current U.S. economy is arguably more reliant on copyright protections than it ever has been in its 237 year history.”
I disagree. The current copyright law is so complex and convoluted that it is often difficult to tell when a work’s copyright has expired. The general rule is “life of the author, plus 70 years,” however there are exceptions to that rule. If a work was published between 1923 through 1963 with copyright notice but the copyright was not renewed, that work is now in the public domain; if a work was published during that same time period and the copyright was renewed, the copyright extends to 95 years after publication date. There is also a formula for “work of corporate authorship” that grants copyright protection for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
In 1998, during debate on the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Mary Bono said, “Actually, Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever. I am informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution. I invite all of you to work with me to strengthen our copyright laws in all of the ways available to us. As you know, there is also Jack Valenti’s proposal for term to last forever less one day. Perhaps the Committee may look at that next Congress.”
Fortunately, the Congress has not yet considered a proposal to extend copyright protection to “forever less one day,” however, there are other proposals that would further criminalize sharing information. Before he committed suicide, Aaron Schwartz was charged with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, charges carrying a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines plus 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution and supervised release. What was Schwartz’s crime? He downloaded academic journals from a website that allows people to download academic journals! When Schwartz downloaded a copy of the journal, he did not deprive anyone else of having access to the journal as would have happened if he stole a physical copy of a book. After all, Nina Paley reminds us that copying is not theft; when you use information to guide your action or configure your own property, the originator of the idea still has it!