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Will Congress once again extend the copyright term?

Want to protect your intellectual property or make use of someone else's IP for artistic purposes? If you're planning on doing so in California or another U.S. state, Congress could end up making things harder than you anticipate. Here's a quick look at the term (or length) of a copyright, the evolution of the copyright term and how another change in the copyright term could impact you.

The copyright term in simple terms

The copyright term is the amount of time a copyright remains valid, or subsists, before the work that it applies to enters the public domain where anyone can use it. For instance, if you wrote a book and got a U.S. copyright, then you'd enjoy protection for the term of your life plus 70 years.

Around the world, different countries have instituted distinct copyright terms. The international standard is the author's life plus 50 years as per the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. As legal experts note, this is already a long time since someone who creates a work when they're young may live for many more years before the "plus 50-year" term kicks in.

The history of U.S. copyright terms

Many people hope to use copyrighted materials that are coming into the public domain at the expiration of their U.S. copyright terms. Unfortunately, lawmakers have a history of creating legal stumbling blocks. Congress has lengthened the term multiple times throughout the nation's history, and many observers note that entertainment giants like Disney directly benefit from such extensions even as smaller players miss out.

Assuming that legislative history and lobbying trends don't repeat themselves, works originally published in 1923 will finally become public domain. Notably, the public opinion landscape today is markedly different than how things were in 1998 when Congress enacted its last copyright law extension. With the advent of the internet and the widespread ability for anyone to publish and create content, more people became aware of the impacts of such changes.

What could changes mean for Californians?

Even without another U.S. copyright term extension, people who want to do things with public domain works may still face challenges. For instance, many online video creators have already run into trouble when attempting to exercise their rights to fair use and utilize existing copyrighted content for academic, remix or commentary purposes. It's worth considering that regardless of whether Congress once again bows to publishing industry or Hollywood pressure to extend the term, smaller content creators and users may yet face legal battles over IP.

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