As part of its commitment under the USMCA Trade Agreement, Canada has now extended its copyright term of protection from life-of-the-author plus fifty years to life-of -author plus seventy years, thereby harmonizing this aspect of its copyright law with the United States, the EU nations, the UK, and others. Canadian trade and IP expert Hugh Stephens writes on his blog, “…from my perspective, the most important benefit is that Canadian rights-holders, creators and creative industries will now play on a level playing field with their competitors in most advanced nations.”
Although compliance with the USMCA was inevitable the moment the deal was signed in 2019, copyright skeptics and critics were still rankled by the official announcement of the term extension. Mike Masnick on Techdirt called it a “scandal” and alleged that the Canadian government is plundering the public domain. “It cannot make sense to extend copyright terms retroactively,” he writes, reiterating a view held by many copyright detractors that once the incentive to create a work has been achieved, copyright rights should fade quickly after the work is made available to the market.
Both on this blog and in my book, I have summarized the story of copyright term lengths and how they got that way—though, admittedly, without trying to encompass the development of copyright law in every nation among the 181 signatories to the Berne Convention Treaty. In general, understanding duration of copyright protection can be viewed through the interwoven narratives of the domestic principles and peculiarities in each nation up to the late nineteenth century and the efforts thereafter to establish reciprocity in trade among the community of nations.
Where there is little variance among culturally comparative nations, however, is a longstanding principle that vesting the rights we call “copyrights” in authors of works is a matter of justice, and this includes a consensus that these rights may be inherited as property by a limited line of the author’s descendants. For instance, in England, this idea first took legislative form in 1837 with a proposed life-of-the-author-plus-sixty-years term, and France was the first with a similarly principled statute in 1793 that allowed for a term of ten years after the author’s death.
The life-plus-fifty-years term was voluntary for signatories to the Berne Convention Treaty between its adoption in 1886 and 1948, when the term became mandatory. The additional twenty years of protection originated in the Maastricht Treaty to form the European Union in 1993, and the U.S. Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 was passed solely in response to that change—and not, as many still believe, to save Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain.
As Stephens discusses in an excellent blog post, Canada played a unique role as a former colony, semi-colony, and independent state while nurturing its own cultural and literary identity and industry. For instance, during the nineteenth century, before the U.S. codified any copyright reciprocity with other nations, its nascent publishing industry pirated English books, which were sold into the Canadian market. Meanwhile, Canadian publishers could not do likewise as subjects of the English Crown, but they could pirate American books to sell into the American market, and famously did so with the works of Mark Twain.
Then, in the twentieth century, while the U.S. was bogged down in its thicket of copyright formalities, which delayed participation in the Berne treaty, Canada became a Berne signatory as an independent nation in 1928. And during the intervening years before the U.S. finally joined Berne in 1989, American authors often published their books first in Canada to obtain what was known as “back door Berne” protection in the international market.
Why Canada did not extend its own term of protection contemporaneously with the U.S. in the 1990s is simply because it has its own legislative, political, and economic narrative vis-à-vis the timing of international trade deals. Unlike the U.S., the EU extension was not so proximate to Canada’s joining Berne, and by the 1990s, of course, the U.S. creative sector was an economic powerhouse with a tremendous interest in arguing for the extension to keep up with Europe.
So, even if Masnick were correct to look only at the incentive part of the copyright equation, trade parity itself is a damn good reason to harmonize copyright terms, if only to avoid the shenanigans of the past. Even now, the extension prompted by the USMCA is not simply about Canadian authors and the Canadian public domain. As Stephens observes, Canadian authors will enjoy equal term of protection for their works being distributed in the EU countries and the UK, while, for instance, U.S. authors will now enjoy equal term of protection for their works distributed in Canada..
Of course, to copyright critics, nearly any term of protection is too long once the incentive threshold has been crossed, but as I have discussed, this “utilitarian” view that copyright rights exist solely to prompt authorship, and should extinguish shortly thereafter, is a cynical and exploitative view of creators that has never been widely accepted in the history of nations with copyright laws.
On the contrary, aside from the fact that “incentive” of the author encompasses a desire to leave something to one’s heirs, this principle has been extant for as long as even proto-copyright rights have existed. The 1978 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Guide to the Berne Convention states, “Most countries have felt it fair and right that the average lifetime of an author and his direct descendants should be covered, i.e., three generations.” And that consensus rests on at least three centuries’ worth of evolution in the doctrines of authorial rights worldwide.
As to retroactive copyright rights, it is true that they can create some confusion (i.e., require research) as to whether a work created under a prior act is still protected. I see these questions all the time. For instance, book authors looking to use photographs created under the terms of the U.S. 1909 Act must do some digging to learn the copyright status of the image. But this is not typically what the copyright term hawks are addressing. And more importantly, it happens to be a moot point in this instance because the Canadian term extension bill explicitly states that it does not restore copyright “in any work in which the copyright had expired before the day on which sections 276 to 279 come into force.”
So, what’s the complaint exactly? Oh, yeah. Copyright bad. Got it.
Image by: stuartmiles