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Extension of Copyright Protection

© 2002 by Mary Embree

Extension of Copyright Protection

In 1998 when Congress extended the term of copyright for individual creators to life plus 70 years, I thought it was a good thing. However, later this year the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether that action by Congress violates the Constitution.

I read Jonathan Tasini’s article in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago and I’ve been having second thoughts about whether copyright extension is such a good thing for creators. Jonathan Tasini is the president of the National Writer’s Union. So why was he opposed to the extension of copyright protection? It all has to do with the principle of copyright.

In his article, “Extending Copyright Helps Corporations, Not Artists,” Tasini writes, “Society should value the work of authors and inventors, and culture will only thrive when they receive a fair return from owning their work. But this exclusive right should be ‘limited’ in time because the flowering of the arts and sciences, as James Madison believed, could only occur when people have access to information in the public domain. Madison also believed the only way to ensure a free and democratic society is to ensure that no single entity controls information.”

For my book, “The Author’s Toolkit,” I did some research on copyrights and discovered that the copyright law has an interesting history. It didn’t even exist until the invention of the printing press in Europe in the 15th century. When books became cheaper and more widely available, the royal government of England granted a group of book publishers called the London Stationers’ Company a monopoly on the printing of books. However, the purpose of this early form of copyright wasn’t to protect author’s and publisher’s rights. It was to raise revenue and give the government control over the contents of the publications. And it was effective. The publishers, not wishing to risk the loss of their monopoly, only published materials that were approved by the royal authorities.

The first real copyright law, in the modern sense, was passed in England in 1710. It granted authors the exclusive right to have their books printed for a limited duration. After 28 years, the works could pass into public domain. Similar laws were enacted in the 18th century in Denmark and France.

In 1790, the United States Congress adopted the nation’s first copyright law. Congress made a major revision to it in the Copyright Act of 1909, reacting to new inventions such as photography and motion pictures. It was replaced by the Copyright Act of 1976 and, although the act has been amended often since then, this statute remains the legal basis for copyright protection in the United States.

Corporations have been “vacuuming up” copyrights, according to Tasini. They have stolen hundreds of thousands of articles, photographs, and illustrations from their original creators. They’ve also forced creators to sign over their copyrights. “Within a few years, media companies will own virtually all copyright,” says Tasini. They would then be able to control information and content. Without a reasonable time limit on copyright, libraries, schools, and individuals will have to pay more for access to information. Tasini believes that “creators should embrace the principle that human knowledge advances when information is shared, that cultural expression belongs to the public and that the intellectual wealth of a nation, in the form of ideas and information cannot - and should not - be locked up as the property of a few.”

Copyright protection should not be extended beyond a reasonable period of time. And “life plus 70 years” is not reasonable. It will not benefit creators. It can only benefit corporations.

~ Mary Embree, SPAWN's Founder, is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant. Mary can be reached at



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