It seems that over the years, patents and copyrights have been in some kind of “Freaky Friday” accident, and have switched bodies. It used to be that patent was the big dog in intellectual property, but now, even big companies like Apple that win patent law suits can’t get the courts to stop infringers and win damages that are so tiny that nobody really cares. Copyrights, on the other hand, used to be about as valuable as the paper they were written on, but now, huge verdicts that put whole companies out of business are the norm. What gives???
You’ve just given the Doc a 64 foot tall soapbox here. So much so that he will have to split the answer up into multiple columns. So here goes…
You see, copyright and patent are both in the US Constitution (Const. Art. I, Sec. 7, Cl. 7 for anyone who cares.) They are the only powers in the Constitution that have an actual reason listed in the document: to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. Back then, by the way, “science” just meant knowledge, while “useful arts” were what we would today call technology. So copyright (literally the right to copy) was a 14 year exclusive on making copies of your writings, and patents protected inventions. So far, so good. But then, Congress fell victim to what the military calls “mission creep.” They started to expand these rights, both in what they protected and for how long.
Over the years since about 1976, Congress has lengthened copyright time and again, so that instead of 14 years, it now lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years, or for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation whichever is shorter, if the work is not registered by the author under her own name (works for hire, anonymous or pseudonymous.) What’s more, in order to benefit from the copyright law, you used to have to put a notice on your work (© 2014 Dr. Copyright) and register it in the Library of Congress. Now, copyright is automatic for everything you write down (or type, or record…) so your shopping list, Instagram photo, Facebook post, or SnapChat are all automatically protected. This has created a minefield where just about anything you see is under copyright for as long as you’re likely to be alive.
Now add in the terribly inefficient US legal system, where just setting foot in a court room costs tens of thousands of dollars, and you can see what has resulted. Finally, add in digital technology that makes it easy (and culturally acceptable) to copy just about anything with one click of a mouse, and you have a perfect storm of copyright.
Many commentators have suggested that because the Constitution says that you can’t promote the progress of knowledge after an author is dead (she’s not writing much, is she?) and because the Constitution specifically says that patents and copyrights are to be for “limited times” we should rethink this mess. Yale Law Fellow Derek Khanna has made three suggestions: shorten copyright back to a reasonable length; get rid of “statutory damages” which allow a judge to award up to $150,000 for downloading just one song, video, or photo, and; recognize that copyright should not regulate technologies such as whether you are allowed to unlock your mobile telephone.
There are many other changes that the Doc would love to see. Unfortunately, the law that stretched out copyrights to 95 years was called the “Mickey Mouse Copyright Term Extension Act” because Disney gave a lot of money to Representatives in Congress to keep Mickey under copyright just before his original one ran out. We are unlikely to see this Congress or any other go against the movie and music industry in our lifetimes, or for 70 years after we’re dead and gone.
Got another intellectual property law question that makes you hot under the collar? Ask the attorneys at LW&H. They’d love to discuss this stuff, especially at your next party or corporate management meeting, and even more so with an adult beverage in hand.
“Next month…the Doc rants about patents and trolls…
— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.