The Next Great Copyright Act

What the “Next Great Copyright Act” means for content producers


“The Next Great Copyright Act” has been the subject of great speculation and discussion this week. It was sparked in large measure by the testimony of Register of Copyright Maria Pallante before the House Judiciary Committee. Palante’s opening statement signaled that she is thinking big:

“Clarifying the scope of exclusive rights, revising exceptions and limitations for libraries and archives, addressing orphan works, accommodating persons who have print disabilities, providing guidance to educational institutions, exempting incidental copies in appropriate instances, updating enforcement provisions, providing guidance on statutory damages, reviewing the efficacy of the DMCA, assisting with small copyright claims, reforming the music marketplace, updating the framework for cable and satellite transmissions, encouraging new licensing regimes, and improving the systems of copyright registration and recordation.”

What’s the motivation behind the call for change? It would be the first major change in copyright law since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act 15 years ago. In fact, much of the current law dates back to the Copyright Act of 1976. Pallante’s position:

The law is showing the strain of its age and requires your attention. As many have noted, authors do not have effective protections, good faith businesses do not have clear roadmaps, courts do not have sufficient direction, and consumers and other private citizens are increasingly frustrated. The issues are numerous, complex, and interrelated, and they affect every part of the copyright ecosystem, including the public at large.

There has been so much change in technology over the last decade (not to mention the last year) that applying copyright law has become a matter of guess work. Is it covered or not covered? Are certain provisions restrictive to the point where they inhibit creativity? To paraphrase Pallante, it opens up far more questions than it answers.

Pallante called for a balance to be struck between the ability of authors, artist and other content producers to enjoy a fair return from their labors and the stimulation of further, public creativity. She urges a “more forward thinking and flexible” law to accommodate future change and suggests that “bold adjustments” be made to the copyright term. That term currently offers rights for the life of the author plus 70 years or in cases of corporate authorship to 95 years after publication. Pallante also suggests that a copyright logjam can be prevented by requiring authors to opt-out of provisions that would automatically enable libraries and educational institutions to make use of their work.

Pallante went out of her way to stress that her remarks on the “Next Great Copyright Act” were intended to be “non-controversial” and said that much of the groundwork for changes was already in place. Are we really on the verge of some major changes? If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet the house on it. Given the current partisan gridlock in Washington over even the most mundane issues and the residual rancor over the SOPA debate, it’s unlikely that anything meaningful will happen in the near term. But now that the Register of the Copyright has spoken, at least the table is set – the issues are defined. Don’t hold your breath but it looks like the start of an evolutionary process that could lead to the “Next Great Copyright Act.”


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