In Orwell’s novel 1984, the Seven Commandments were eventually distilled into “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others“.
Copyright is supposed to be a one size fits all regime, under which all creative works are protected for a fixed period, currently 50 or 70 years from death of the author depending what the creative work is, when it was created and where in the world the copyright is applied.
The argument for this veeeeeerrrrrry long period is that without it, creative types wouldn’t exert themselves to create and the world would be a less colourful place to live.
The simple accounting procedures used by actuaries to calculate the present day value of income in 50 or 70 years implies that this justification makes no economic sense, even if we one buys the assumption that the created work would not have been created were it not for the copyright protection.
In the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, the United States harmonized their copyright term with Europe’s. The Act is known as the Mickey Mouse law, since it prolonged the term of valuable copyrights held by the Disney corporation.
All creative works, for those dawdled on a napkin or the back of an envelope, through private correspondence, songs that no-one listens to, books that no-one reads, through to the international best sellers and texts that become part of high school curricula have the same protection term. Unlike designs, trademarks or patents, there are no registration requirements and no extension fees.
Then there are the exceptions.
The Anne Frank Foundation claims that Otto Frank, Anne’s father was a coauthor of the diary and so it should remain copyright protected until 70 years from his death in 1980. They don’t argue that this will provide an incentive to Ms Frank to continue writing, or even that the diary which was never meant for publication was written with copyright in mind. They claim that copyright is necessary to protect Ms Frank’s character’s integrity. They don’t explain how Otto Frank’s apparently significant censorship, editing and rewriting, after Anne Frank’s murder did not contravene her moral rights or right to privacy.
There has been discussion on keeping Mein Kampf copyright protected to prevent its dispersion. Odd really, since Hitler never had a problem with it being widely available. If one wants the holocaust to be studied, both Anne Frank’s diary and Mein Kampf should be available. If one wants to prevent Ultra Right Ring nationalism from recurring in Austria and Germany, one can prevent neo-Nazi groups from meeting. I don’t think that the British Red Cross is still gaining from royalties from Mein Kampf but the fact that in 1939 they did should make one wary of statements and reports from charitable organizations claiming apolitical objectivity.
Copyright exceptions are more common than one might think.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was killed in 1944, during a flight over the Mediterranean Sea. “The Little Prince” is the third most popular novel in the world, translated into over 250 languages. More than 80 million copies have been printed. On 1st January 2015 “The Little Prince” entered the public domain 70 years after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s death – except in France.
In France, works of authors who died for France during the First and Second World Wars benefit from additional copyright protection. In France, the novel will pass into the public domain sometime between 1 May 2033 and 1 January 2045.
The there is the Peter Pan bequest. Peter Pan’s copyright should have expired 70 years after Barrie’s death in 1937. However, J. M. Barrie bequeathed all the rights to Peter Pan to the hospital in 1929 and they have provided badly needed funds ever since. The British Parliament legislated a lex specialis to keep the copyright protection going.
Concerned with commercialization of the Pontifical character, the Vatican passed a special copyright law to prevent others from referring to goods and services as being Papal. They apparently seek to establish and safeguard the name, image and any symbols of the Pope as being expressly for official use of the Holy See unless otherwise authorized.