Thursday, January 1, 2015

The chaos of copyright rules

When publishers and author associations complain about the huge amount of copyright violation in piratical download of digital publications, including electronic books (e-books), they should start by trying to put a little order in the chaos of copyright laws, which has become outstanding since Internet has made easy the exchange of digital files between world-wide users. Let us consider a few examples of this chaos:
·         In the USA, every book published before 1923 is in the public domain. For those published between 1923 and 1963, the default duration was 28 years after publication, which could be extended to 95 by renewing the copyright. The latter became the copyright duration for all books between 1964 and 1977. After 1978, copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death.

·         In all the countries of the European Union, for all authors dead since 1994, copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death.
·         In Spain, for authors dead before 1987, copyright endures till 80 years after their death. 60 years is applicable to those dead between 1987 and 1994. The European Union rule is in effect for authors dead after 1994.
·         Canada, New Zealand and Australia had a 50-year-after-death rule. In 2006, Australia adopted the European Union rule without backdating, which means that copyright there has expired for all authors dead before 1956. The other two countries have not changed their laws, so all books written by authors dead before 1965 are in the public domain there. Thus many books under copyright in the USA and Europe do not hold it in those three countries.
Project Gutenberg makes freely available over a million e-books and is very careful not to include books under copyright protection in the USA. However, the Australian version of this project offers books in the public domain in Australia, but under copyright protection in Europe and the USA. This web and a similar in Canada include warnings such as the following:
Because Project Gutenberg Australia can only perform copyright research using Australian laws, it is possible that some eBooks which are public domain in Australia are still under copyright protection in other countries. Persons outside of Australia should check their laws before redistributing Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks.

Internet has given rise to freedom of communication almost everywhere in the world, which makes absurd keeping in effect contradictory copyright rules. All countries should reach an agreement on a backdated common legislation that should also reduce the copyright period, for the current 70-year-after-death rule is unreasonable and sometimes reaches over a century after the book was published. Are they trying to protect the great-grandchildren of the authors? Not at all. They are protecting the publishers, who are always putting pressure on governments to increase the periods and persecute illegal downloads. Not all publishers, however, agree: Baen Books, for instance, believes that free diffusion of e-books improves the sale of paper books and offer free access to a part of their catalog.

Manuel Alfonseca

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