Recently I talked about the threat to Canada’s public domain. The following is a letter I have sent in response to the government consultation on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As with all my blog posts, it is published under a Creative Commons Attribution license. I encourage you to speak up by February 14 and write your own letter declaiming the desecration of the public domain! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am writing as a concerned Canadian citizen, as well as a student and future educator, with regards to the effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Canadian copyright law and the public domain. I am aware of the potential benefits of the TPP for Canada’s trade and economy. However, analysis of the proposed agreement reveals that accepting the TPP would commit Canada to extending its copyright term from life of the author plus 50 years to life of the author plus 70 years. This would effectively leave the public domain in Canada stagnant for 20 years. Beyond that, the increase in copyright terms will mean an additional delay—in some cases, more than a century—between the publication of a work and its entry into the public domain. Many Canadians, including myself, feel that such a commitment is too high a price to pay, regardless of the other benefits the TPP may bring. The public domain is an important, essential cultural resource and a part of Canada’s heritage. Limiting it by extending the term of copyright protection will be counterproductive and deleterious to creators and consumers alike.
Copyright was originally created as a way of giving a creator a limited monopoly on his or her intellectual productions. By providing the creator of a work with this economic advantage, it created the incentive for creators to continue producing new works. Copyright is a valuable and important part of intellectual property law and the economy. However, like any law, it must be balanced in the extent to which it curtails the rights of one group in order to protect the interests of another. Hence, copyright does not last indefinitely. It ends a significant period after the original creator of the work can no longer stand to benefit from it. I have yet to see a convincing argument that extending the term of copyright an additional 20 years has a positive economic impact. If the author is already dead, who stands to benefit from the work remaining in copyright? The publishers or distributors, maybe. Perhaps the author’s heirs—if there are any. But the distributors have had at least 50 years to continue making a profit off this work; the same goes for the heirs, who should in time have found their own ways to earn a living. At any rate, the fact that the work remains copyrighted does nothing to further the original goal of copyright, which is as an incentive to the creator to produce new works. There is no economic benefit to extending the term of copyright.
Perhaps this move to extend copyright comes from trepidation over the nature of the public domain, particularly now that the Internet and the World Wide Web have revolutionized how we communicate and distribute information. Yet the public domain is the single largest body of intellectual property on the planet—and it belongs to the people, as it should. When a work enters the public domain, the creator does not lose money—indeed, the creator will be dead. Rather, the Canadian people gain a valuable piece of culture that can be reproduced, translated, adapted, and derived from at will. Speaking personally, as a student currently training to become a secondary school teacher, the public domain is an essential resource to public education. It is a vector for the potential within every student, every child, everyone who desires to express his or her creativity. Individual artists and creators benefit from a healthy public domain, for additions to the public domain act as inspiration and source material. The same holds true for the larger corporations whose vast collections of copyrighted works often put them in the position of advocating for stricter copyright. Those corporations benefit from the public domain—would Disney have been so quick to make Cinderella if it were still in copyright? The lack of licensing fees makes public domain works particularly attractive for individuals and corporations alike.
The public domain is as much an economic and cultural resource as the natural, technological, and human resources that have made our country great. To limit the public domain in the name of protecting intellectual property is a shortsighted and ultimately ineffective endeavour. If the Canadian government signs the TPP as it stands and extends the term of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years, they will be sending an unequivocal signal that they do not think the public domain is of value. Worse, they will be consigning the Canadian public domain to stagnation, endangering the cultural heritage of all Canadians in the process. An entire generation of Canadians will grow up thinking that this gross distortion and abuse of copyright is legitimate. If the TPP is truly in the best interest of Canada and its people, then by all means, continue pursuing negotiations—but please consider doing so with an eye toward intellectual property provisions that are thoughtful, balanced, and just.
Sincerely, Ben Babcock