Copyright goes Green

By Brand Heeler

A green proposal to amend copyright

As has been regularly noted, intellectual property doesn’t get much attention from politicians, especially not in the in the middle of an election campaign. But the UK Green Party has caused a bit of a stir by including a proposal to amend copyright as part of their manifesto. Specifically, they suggest reducing the term of copyright protection to 14 years after the author’s death (post mortem auctoris, as we say in legalese).

Given that the Greens’ sole MP in the UK parliament represents Brighton – a town full of authors, artists and creatives of all description who rely heavily on copyright to earn a crust – this is quite a brave stance. Caroline Lucas (the MP in question, currently a candidate for re-election) has explained that this is ‘just a proposal [and so] isn’t in our general election manifesto. It is not something we want to introduce as a priority in the next 5 years.’ However, the manifesto clearly proposes to amend copyright to make it ‘fairer, more flexible and shorter. To bring the law up to date to better reflect the demands of the digital age.’

In the centuries since the Statute of Anne 1710 the momentum has been relentlessly towards longer terms of copyright protection, from 14 years post publication, via 50 years pma (Berne Convention 1886) and now commonly 70 years pma e.g. in the USA, Australia and the UK.

It hardly needs saying that this can be a very long time – the work of a long-lived child prodigy could conceivably be protected for 150 years. The rationale for this has always been to offer authors and artists a fair chance to derive a proper income from their work during their lifetime, and to be able to bequeath this value to their estates like any other property. But why should the children (or even grandchildren) of an author be able to enjoy the fruits of their ancestor’s hard work and ingenuity in a way that isn’t offered to the descendants of, say, inventors or plant breeders?

And the current structure of copyright can lead to anomalies. Take two great WW1 poets: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Owen was killed in 1918, one week short of the Armistice. Consequently, his works fell out of copyright in 1968 (the term was then 50 year pma). Sassoon meanwhile survived until 1967 and so his poems, written at the same time, are currently copyrighted until 2037. Are the latter so much more deserving of protection than the former? Why should it turn on a question of survival?

The Greens seem to be very alone in calling for any kind of reduction and their suggestion of 14 years pma is perhaps a little low (could they be deliberately channelling the Statute of Anne?) Many authors would say they need as long a term as possible in order to recoup a decent income from their works. But in reality the vast majority of published books (to take one art form as an example) make little or no money at all, let alone 70 years after their author’s death.

The Greens have kicked off quite a discussion among the literati and twitterati of Brighton and, if nothing else, they’ve started a conversation. One day that might lead to stemming the tide of ever more and longer copyright but, given the international nature of modern copyright and the huge sums at stake for vested interests, it’s going to take more than a single UK MP to make a difference.

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.