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Copyright Law Upheld – and Challenged

20 January 2003

The US Supreme Court has voted seven to two to uphold Bono's Law, introduced five years ago by musician-turned-congressman Sonny Bono, which increased the copyright cover in a work from the life of the author plus 50 years to life plus 70 years. Copyright in a work produced on commission and owned by a corporation was extended from 75 to 95 years. Critics of the law, consisting of a coalition of Internet publishers and other users of non-copyright material, had argued that it was unconstitutional and had petitioned for its repeal. This would have led to large corporations losing control of some important work, ranging from Scott Fitzgerald novels to early Mickey Mouse films, which would immediately have been placed out of copyright by a return to life plus 50 years.

It appears that the Supreme Court was influenced by the 1993 European Union directive which established life plus 70 years as the norm but which, significantly, would have denied that protection to works from non-EU countries which did not subscribe to the 70 years. This would have left American authors unprotected within the EU after the 50 years on each work had expired

In another part of the forest, as they say, things have been moving in the opposite direction. Publisher John Wiley has announced a series of computer books under the title Bruce Perens Open Source Series, which will be published under the Open Publication License. They will come out as traditional books, but two months after publication will be made freely available in electronic form. They can be photocopied at any time. The publisher has made a 'strategic commitment' to the open license, believing that people will still want to have the paper version and will pay for the added convenience. There's no doubt that this will be an interesting experiment.