Corporate Welfare through Copyright Welfare
United States citizens may not be aware of legislation that lines the pockets of large corporations, and well-heeled individuals and entities at the expense of the American public.
The bills in question, HR 2589, and S 505, extend copyright ownership to those holding copyrights for an additional 20 years. HR 2589 has passed the subcommittee, and is headed to full judiciary committee in Jan. of 1998. It has been orchestrated by the subcommittee as a "popular" bill. Letters are pouring in supporting it.
Of course letters are pouring in! Those who get this copyright extension will gain a ton of money from the copyright term extension. The problem is, YOU will pay the bill.
Copyrights are for a limited time. When copyrights expire, the works fall into the public domain. The public domain is yours, and mine. That means you or I can use the song, book, movie, or whatever copyrighted work that has expired in any way we like. The material becomes public property as required by the copyright clause of the Constitution. Scholars, new authors, educators, and the public benefit from the public domain.
However, the copyright owners do not want to let go. Present terms of copyright are 50 years AFTER the death of the author, or 75 years (depending on when the work was made, or type of copyright). This is a long time to enjoy a monopoly. Every time copyrighted music or works are used, royalties are paid. If you hear music on a video, radio, at a summer camp, or on TV, (music copyright), or see a high school play (literary copyright), payments are being made to copyright owners. Plays for schools cost hundreds or thousands to license. A single Gershwin song licensed for a year to United Airlines cost today $250,000. Imagine how much money is collected by ASCAP & BMI (music licensing organizations). It is staggering. Copyright owners want 20 more years!
So, what is it to you, the public? You are paying the bill. When United Airlines pays a quarter of a million to use a song, it is passed to you as higher ticket prices. If it was PD, anyone could use it. If the high school play was in the public domain, the school could use the thousand dollars in licensing fees for other educational purposes. You would spend less tax dollars for education. Multiply these figures by ALL school usage and ALL music usage and a HUGE amount of royalties are passed on to the American consumer. As far as the public is concerned, public domain is GOOD, not bad. Public domain is a national resource.
Large corporations and studios own vast amounts of copyrights. Many of the copyrights they did not create. They were bought and acquired through mergers. An example is Warner or Sony, who own copyrights to music and films. After 75 years works from 1922 are finally falling into public domain. Schools can use them. Historians can use them. New authors can reuse and rework them in new creations.
However, the large corporations and wealthy personal trusts are collecting vast amounts of royalties. So they just lobby congress and introduce 20-year extension legislation. By the way, in 1976 they lobbied for a 19-year extension and got it. (Think what THAT has already cost you--and now they want more!.)
The proposed legislation is no more than a welfare measure for the benefit of those persons who own copyrights on old works--a wealth transfer imposed on the American public for the benefit of large corporations (like Disney, whose copyright on Mickey Mouse has only a decade or so to run) and descendants of creative authors like George Gershwin or Oscar Hammerstein II. Schools that wish to publicly perform plays and music, archivists who wish to restore lost or forgotten works, scholars and creative artists who wish to use these cultural building blocks in creating new works, and the U.S. public in general through its royalty payments will foot a very heavy bill. New creativity and scholarship will suffer badly and irretrievably.
When George Gershwin was writing his music, the copyright term was for a maximum of 56 years. That term was extended by 19 years in 1976. According to a Wall Street Journal article, a nationwide license for a single Gershwin song went for $45,000 to $75,000 15 years ago and now goes for $200,000 to $250,000. Taking average of the lower end figures, that amounts to $122,500 per year for 19 years--$2,327,500--of extra royalties that have already flowed into the coffers of the Gershwin family trust in those 19 years for a single song. The 20-year copyright term extension would therefore add tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars to a trust that has already been more than generously rewarded for George Gershwin's wonderful contributions to American culture.
Ultimately those dollars are paid by US citizens in the form of higher prices, and in the loss to US citizens of new works that could creatively rely on Gershwin's music but whose potential authors cannot afford the license fees.
Think of the millions of dollars in copyright royalties the American public will pay in schools, restaurants, summer camps, TV broadcasts, library uses if 20 more years of copyright royalties are granted. These will be passed on tho the American consumer, you and me.
George Gershwin and Walter Donaldson are as much a part of the American heritage as Stephen Foster and Mark Twain. Like those great icons, their works, too, should eventually be part of our common cultural heritage that is available to all. Copyright term extension is a bad idea that must be defeated in Congress. That will happen only if public voices are raised, loud and strong, in the public interest.
This argument is not anti-copyright, nor anti-author. Copyright owners enjoy sufficient copyright terms in the United States to enjoy the fruits of their labor without the extension. HR 2589 and S 505 is special interest legislation introduced to Congress by those who will benefit from it--not current creators but descendants and assignees of creative artists from the past. Will Congress work in the public interest, or will Congress tax the public with continued royalty payments? Congress may be abusing the public trust by ignoring the financial and creative costs this legislation imposes on American citizens.
The public costs are too great to grant a 20 year extension in copyright. Contact those legislators responsible for this public giveaway today.
For more detailed information and arguments against copyright term extension, visit the Opposing Copyright Extension web page at
American Film Heritage Association
Professor Dennis Karjala
Visiting Professor of Law
University of Minnesota Law School