They Want it How Long?

The Green Party and Copyright

There has been a small hoo-hah in the political wing of the literary community about a policy of the (British) Green Party.  Their 2015 manifesto is vague on the point, but their party policy  says

Specifically we will
a. […]
b. 
introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years;

It’s that 14 years that is getting people hot under the collar.  For the purposes of this post, I shall assume that they really mean (as their policy implies) 14 years from the creation of a work of art to the expiration of copyright.

Now, it is possible to take a position that there should be no copyright whatsoever.  If you want to take that position, then I’m not going to argue with you. Instead I shall send you to Joanne Harris’s blog  and she will tell you why you are wrong.  No, the issue for this post is how long copyright should last.

Sonny Bono
Sonny Bono – from singing hippy to conservative senator

Under current British and most international law, copyright persists for 70 years after the death of the author (or the last surviving creator, for collaborative works).  American law is more complex, in particular due to the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension act, which extended the copyright on corporate works to 120 years from the date of creation or 95 years from the date of publication, whichever is earlier.  For simplicity, let’s assume the current law is life plus 70 years.

When a work is in copyright, the copyright holder (usually the author working through a literary agent or publisher) has the right to say what can (and what cannot) be done with the work.  Through that right, the author is entitled to financial benefit from the work.  When copyright expires, the work enters the public domain.  That means that there is no restriction on the work – anyone can do what they like with it.  Derivative works can be created without the permission of the author; plays can be staged without the need to pay royalties.  The author (or, in the case of current copyright law, the author’s literary estate) derives no further income from the work.

So, is the Green Party’s 14 years enough to achieve that financial benefit?  The aim of the Green Party’s policy is to promote creativity (implicitly through the adaptation and reuse of works whose copyright has expired).  I would argue that it would have the opposite effect.
In the past few weeks, my theatrical excursions have included productions of Chess (copyright 1986), The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Barefoot in the Park (1963) and A Bedfull of Foreigners (1973).  All of those (and all of their contemporaries) would be out-of-copyright under a 14-year term.  If you consider this from the point of view of a producing company (most of whom operate on very thin margins), then if the choice is between paying royalties for a ten-year-old script or no royalties for one five years older, then for the most part, the older work will win.  So where’s the incentive to create new work?  There will be some arts bodies sponsoring new works, but otherwise, where will playwrights gain an income?  Who is going to pay authors for new work when they can get fairly recent work free of charge?  This will lead to playwrights working for nothing as the only way to get their works to the stage.  And, since publishers will not be able to achieve a return, few works will get published.

On the other hand, what’s the point of life-plus-70-years?  Copyright for the author’s lifetime is reasonably easy to justify – royalty income as a long slow trickle, in lieu of a pension – but why 70 years beyond that?  This seems to derive from the idea of a single-earner household, in which the author dies young (it used to be tuberculosis) and his widow (because all writers are men married to housewives) has to subsist on his royalty income for the rest of her life.  With modern lifespans and working patterns, this is nonsense.  A writer creating a magnum opus at thirty might get fifty years of royalty income which then benefits the literary estate for a further seventy years.  Get your own jobs, you bunch of slackers!

A case can of course, be made for supporting real dependents (generally minors) after the premature death of a writer, but I would argue that this should only last for their minority; after that, they can get proper jobs, just like anyone else.  (Proper jobs, of course, include the paid creation of new artistic works.)  That argument creates legal complexity (how do you know whether or not a work is in copyright because it is supporting dependents?)  To simplify, I would suggest a copyright duration of (say) 30 years or the life of the author, whichever was longer.

(Disclaimer: as a publisher, I administer copyright on behalf of authors, including a small number of deceased playwrights.  I should therefore stress that I shall continue to uphold the current law, even though I disagree with it!  There are a few more notes about copyright here.)

Political Afterthought

Whilst my main purpose was to discuss the logic of this single issue, there is also an interesting political consideration in that some writers wanted to dismiss the Green Party and all its works over just this one issue.  This strikes me as odd.  All political parties offer baskets of policies and generally it will be difficult to find a party whose every policy you agree with.  On the other hand, as a member of the electorate, you may have some issues that are red lines for you, and would stop you voting for a party that took a particular position.  That’s fine, except that if you are considering voting for smaller parties, it is most unlikely that they will get a majority of seats; whilst they may have an influence on policy, they will be unlikely to be able to implement their whole manifesto.

My point here is not to encourage people to support (or dismiss) any particular party.  My point is that the decision needs to be thought through.

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3 thoughts on “They Want it How Long?

    1. Yes, I knew there was some doubt about whether or not they meant it literally; I chose to take the policy as written, not least to remind politicians of the need for clarity!
      The Green Party is at least correct in that copyright and intellectual property are important policy issues.

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