Copyright goes green

What the Greens have in mind is apparently to reduce the term of copyright protection to 14 years “post mortem auctoris” (after the creator’s death). Given that the sole Green MP in the last UK parliament represented Brighton - a town full of authors, artists and creatives of all description who rely largely on copyright to generate an income - this is 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 does set out a proposal 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.”

The UK’s Statute of Anne (1710) (usually seen as the first copyright statute) set a term of 14 years from publication during which publisher had exclusive rights in their published books. This ground-breaking concept was taken up with gusto across the world, broadening and deepening until the Berne Convention of 1886 extended copyright to pretty much all forms of artistic expression, protecting them for 50 years pma. By the end of the 20th century, this had been further extended to 70 years pma in many jurisdictions such as the USA and UK.

It hardly needs saying that 70 years pma can be a very long time – if you write a book or compose a song in your teens and survive until your 90s, your work could be protected for getting on for 150 years. The rationale for this has always been seen as giving authors a chance to derive a fair income from their work during their lifetime, and to be able to bequeath this value to their estates like any other property. But BrandSoup has never been happy with this, partly because it seems excessive and partly because of the anomalies it can lead to. 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 copyright until 2037. Are the latter so much more deserving of protection than the former? Why should it turn on a question of survival?

There have been many suggestions as to how best to amend copyright so as to strike a proper balance between incentivising creativity on the one hand and freeing up information and art on the other. In recent decades, the momentum has been relentlessly towards longer terms of protection - 50 years pma to 70 for authors, a similar extension of performers rights to 70 years (following a high profile campaign by Cliff Richard).

The Greens seem to be alone in calling for any kind of reduction and their suggestion of 14 years 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. And why should the children (or even grandchildren) of an author be able to luck into a windfall based on their ancestor’s hard work and ingenuity, in a way that isn't offered to the descendants of, say, inventors or plant breeders?

The Greens have kicked off quite a discussion among the literati and twitterati of Brighton. If nothing else, they’ve started a conversation which, in BrandSoup’s opinion, is long overdue.   Personally, we’d like to see some consideration given to reducing copyright to the longer of life or 70 years, but given the international nature of modern copyright and the huge sums at stake for vested interests, we can’t see it happening soon.

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