Friday, April 15, 2011
In the end, Jefferson was persuaded by Madison that a strictly limited copyright would indeed “promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” as the Constitution was to proclaim. By enjoying a short-term monopoly on the publication of their writings, authors would be encouraged to share their ideas in print. How short should the term be? The copyright act of 1790 set it at 14 years, renewable once. The founders took this limit from British precedents, which went back through a series of court cases to the original copyright act of 1710. Along the way, some experts argued that copyright should be perpetual, because intellectual property was like ownership of land — absolute until alienated by sale. But that view was overridden by the notion that knowledge belonged to everyone and should revert to the public domain, where everyone can make use of it.
Today, however, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years — or even longer in some cases. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, because the monopoly on Mickey was about to expire) now prevents most 20th-century literature from being available in the public domain. When asked how long he thought copyrights should last, Jack Valenti, the lobbyist for Hollywood, quipped, “Forever, minus a day.” Valenti has won, Jefferson has lost.