May 22, 2003
I am writing to urge you to sponsor the Public Domain Enhancement Act (PDEA), which corrects problems in current copyright law in light of the Internet’s capacity to spread knowledge and creativity.
The public domain and copyright term renewal have been crucial to the traditional copyright balance between content producers and the public. Access to public domain materials has fostered creativity and enabled libraries and schools (among others) to spread the work of our country’s talented artists and scholars. Until the Copyright Act of 1976, copyrights had to be renewed, and thus works that were no longer profitable generally entered into the public domain.
New laws have dissolved this balance. Copyright terms no longer need to be renewed. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term of all works created after 1923 even though roughly 2% of work created between 1923 and 1942 are still profitable. Moreover, tracking down copyright owners in order to ask permission to use their works is exceedingly difficult, for there is no registry or database of copyright holders. Under this system, no one benefits from myriad copyrighted materials – copyright holders do not gain from unprofitable works, and the public cannot gain legal access to these works because they are no longer produced and distributed.
What’s more, the copyright balance has been upset just as we can reap increasing benefits from the public domain. Digitization technologies and the Internet now make it vastly cheaper to disseminate artistic materials. Certainly, the Internet has enabled illicit distribution of copyrighted content; however, it has also enhanced legitimate uses of the public domain. For example, the Internet Archive http://www.archive.org) has published numerous public domain texts, sound recordings, and movies. But, without a rich public domain, the Archive’s efforts—and many others’—will be stunted.
The PDEA restores balance to copyright law by reviving the American tradition of renewal. Under the proposed law, a copyright owner would need to pay a $1 maintenance fee 50 years after a work was “published.” If the copyright owner paid the fee, then he would enjoy the benefit of the full copyright term. If he did not, then the work would pass into the public domain. Given historical estimates, close to 98% of copyrighted work would enter the public domain after just 50 years. Or put differently, for 98% of copyrighted work, it is not even worth $1 to the copyright owner to continue the copyright.
Upon receiving copyright renewal forms, the Library of Congress or the Copyright Office could create a copyright registry. Determining a work’s copyright status and owners would become far easier.
The PDEA poses minimal burden to copyright owners. Copyright holders who wish to receive continued protection can do so by paying the low $1 fee. Surely, with a sufficient grace period for tardy renewals, no one would be harmed.
While many current copyright debates have pitted copyright holders against new technologies, this Act presents no such conflict. Current copyright holders have nothing to lose from this Act, and the public has everything to gain. You, _______, have the opportunity to spur the distribution and use of untold amounts of creative works. You can help create a 21st century Library of Alexandria. Please support the PDEA.
Thanks very much