Copyright term extension: What’s the point?

The European Commission’s adoption of a copyright term extension proposal yesterday (covered by Ars Technica, Slashdot, and Digital Copyright Canada) provides an eerie reminder that, despite a plethora of evidence that such extensions are a bad idea, governing bodies continue to actively extend copyright terms. To determine why they are a bad idea, it is important to separate the two ways that copyright terms can be extended: by extending the terms of existing works (retroactive term extension) and by extending the terms of works that have yet to be made. Note that the EC’s copyright term extension includes both.

The purpose of copyright is to promote the creation of literary and artistic works. Because a retroactive term extension applies to works that have already been created, it cannot possibly promote the creation of new works. Furthermore, it reduces the number of works in the public domain, impeding the ability of new authors to build on the past. Not only is a retroactive term extension not helpful, it in fact hurts society.

Extending the copyright term for future works may provide some additional incentive to create new works. However, because copyright terms are already quite long (life of the author plus 50+ years in most jurisdictions), the net present value of the copyright term extension (the additional years for which the author holds exclusive rights) is very low. This is clearly laid out by a group of economists in their argument against copyright term extensions to the Supreme Court of the United States. Appendix B (page 23) shows that the net present value of copyright term extension is less than 2% of the existing net present value without term extensions, even assuming a low interest rate. And as with a retroactive term extension, extending the term for future works would impede creators’ ability to build on past works by reducing the number of works in the public domain. This detriment to the public domain far outweighs the negligible increase in creators’ revenue from a copyright term extension on future works.

Given all this, why would anyone implement a copyright term extension? Primarily it is a way for governing bodies to pacify creators by claiming that they will earn more money while economists have shown that such increases are negligible. It is my view that governing bodies that implement a copyright term extension have not adequately considered the negative impacts of such legislation.

2 Responses to “Copyright term extension: What’s the point?”

  • I agree with your post. One nitpicky correction: when you write

    “Because a retroactive term extension applies to works that have already been created, it cannot possibly promote the creation of new works.”

    I think you mean “(…) it cannot possible have promoted the creation of these works.”

    … that just makes more sense to me 🙂 but let me know if I’m mistaken.

  • That’s partially what I meant. But I also meant that it doesn’t further the purpose of copyright because it doesn’t promote the creation of new works (since retroactive extensions apply only to already-created works). I outlined this purpose of copyright in the previous sentence.

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