Copyright Duration and Multinational Disharmony

Professor Kenneth D. Crews, M.L.S., Ph.D, Samuel R. Rosen II Professor in the Indiana University School of Law, Indianapolis and in the IU School of Library and Information Sciences, Director of the Copyright Management Center, October 2005

As the United States and members of the European Union have revised the law of copyright duration, they have generated considerable disharmony in the shape and application of the law. An E.U. directive from 1993 was an attempt to create greater “harmonization” of duration law; the effort to address the issues in the context of the WTO was intended to increase predictability as copyrighted works were created and used in multiple jurisdictions of the world. However, not all countries have implemented the law on the same terms, and the multinational documents themselves allow for a wide range of variation in the law as applied to diverse works. Adding to the chaos have been developments in the United States, which converted to a system of “life plus 70 years” for most works, but with important variations for different works, and with a preservation of previous law granting a generally fixed period of years to earlier works. The result has been a proliferation of confusion—and a growth in uncertainty—about the duration of copyright protection for any particular work, whether text, music, art, software, or any other copyrighted material. The confusion has had profound consequences for copyright owners who are sometimes left unsure of the rights they hold. Confusion in the law also jeopardizes the well-being of the public domain. Copyrights expire in order that works may enter the public domain and become the foundation for the next generation of creativity. When the law of duration is mired in confusion, users are unable to identify the boundaries of the public domain, and the growth of creativity suffers.