The Green Party in the UK has found itself in a bit of hot water with the creative sector when it made a policy statement that it would shorten copyright terms to 14 years. As far as I am aware, this is the first proposal of its kind outside of Pirate Parties. While I have some misgivings about the way the party has handled the issue, there cannot be any doubt that at least it has opened the debate again on what should be the ideal copyright term.
Generally I welcome proposals for shortening copyright terms, but I have to admit that the Green proposal, and some of its handling, has been naïve at best. The proposal is short, and it reads as follows:
“[I]ntroduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”.
This is short on length and detail, but it seems to imply that the current term of lifetime of the author plus 70 years (with variations) is too long, and it should be decreased. I completely agree that the copyright term has been artificially extended to fit the needs of a few, what Tom Bell calls the Mickey Mouse curve, but the proposal fails to admit that the UK cannot unilaterally decide on copyright terms, this is a matter of international harmonisation. For example, Art 7 of the Berne Convention establishes copyright term at lifetime plus 50 years; the term Directive 2006/116/EC sets the duration to lifetime of the author plus 70 years. The discussion should therefore be not so much about changing copyright term, but about the reasons why duration continues to be extended internationally.
The Greens are supported by many creative types, so this proposal was met with some animosity, so much so that Green MP for Brighton Caroline Lucas to state in no uncertain terms that this proposal is not in the manifesto, and that she supports the creative industries.
What is going on? Why this proposal?
From what I understand, this is a policy that arose from a crowd-sourced exercise that the Green Party undertakes, and it is based on research conducted by Rufus Pollock which places the optimal copyright duration to 15 years. Tom Chance has written an unmissable article giving more detail about the proposals, and he states that the policy is to diminish the term to 14 years after the death of the author.
Ignoring the international perspective, I tend to favour a two-pronged approach consisting on the reduction of copyright term, but also to re-introduce registration. We could have a much shorter term subject to free registration and renewal. The Berne Convention makes it possible for copyright to exist as soon as the work is created, it flows from the pen to the paper as they say. Allowing registration again would make it harder to claim copyright, but would benefit society in the long run. The advantage of renewal is that it would let creators to profit from their work, and if it’s still viable they could renew the registration, but it would allow for works where the profit element is gone to slowly go to the public domain, enriching culture and helping us to tackle orphan works. These proposals are not mine, they are part of the COMMUNIA network for the public domain, but I have yet to read any good argument against them.
Having said that, I still welcome that this has become an electoral subject.