April 10th marks the 300th anniversary of the date on which Queen Anne signed into law “an act for the encouragement of learning” – the first copyright law.
As The Economist captures in a well-argued editorial, when the law was first enacted, copyright protection extended a maximum of 28 years (14 upon publication, and 14 upon renewal). To maintain copyright, the author had to be alive at the start of the second 14-year term.
The “Statute of Anne” was written to balance the private incentive to create new work – to publish a book – with the public good that comes from unfettered access to knowledge and creative effort. In the last several decades, corporate interests have lobbied successfully to extend the protected period, which now reaches nearly a century in the United States.
There are plenty of people who argue that the current trend should be reversed. Chief among the advocates of copyright reform is Cory Doctorow, whose British Council essay is a touchstone for the value of access.
I’m hardly a copyright expert, but there is ample evidence that longer copyright windows and aggressive (limiting) interpretations of fair use are stifling creative efforts. That’s by design.
The velocity of change and the ease with which new work can now be created and disseminated argue for shorter, not longer, copyright protections. Ultimately, copyright reform is a legislative initiative. In that context, I can’t bet that we come back to 28 years any time soon.