world copyright
Copyright regulations, particularly the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act get a lot of negative press here on the TeleRead blog. It would be fairly easy to get the impression (as I did) that this piece of legislation puts the US above and beyond all or most other nations in terms of copyright restrictions.

After a few hours of slogging through legal documents from 80+ countries, using the UNESCO national copyright laws site, I discovered that the US copyright term as such is not uncommon; it is shared by at least 33 other countries. My complete findings are now part of a greatly expanded Wikipedia entry on the topic, though I can’t vouch for the validity of most of the entries I myself didn’t make (check the page history to find the specific changes).

What is not reflected in the legal documents, but still relevant for the practical application of copyright, is the extent to which the laws are enforced. This is an important factor that I believe sets the US apart from a number of other countries with the same copyright term. You don’t hear much about Malta or Bosnia and Herzegovina cracking down on copyright infringement.

A few interesting copyright factoids follow:

  • An author who died for France gets a 30-year extension on his French copyright term
  • According to the 1928 Soviet copyright law, copyright was only life of the author + 15 years
  • In the 1961 Soviet copyright law, the State could compulsorily purchase all rights from the author or his heirs
  • In current Iraq copyright law, reading of the Koran are protected
  • Finland has a specific provision for making copies of radio/TV programs for temporary use in hospitals, senior citizens’ homes, prisons, and “similar institutions”
  • The official title of the Brunei copyright law is “Emergency (copyright) Order, 1999”
  • Guatemala and Honduras have one of the longest copyright terms, at 75 years
  • Hate copyright? Move to the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Swaziland, or Laos


  1. My own feelings about copyright in general are mixed, but it really does sound like there were some shady, personal-interest dealings going on with that.

    Regardless of how it happened, though, the point remains– we’re not the only ones with a 70-year term. At the present moment, that means a massive amount of material that (c/sh)ould be in the public domain isn’t. What it also means is that even if the act is repealed here, that will only cover the material in the US. It’s not a foregone conclusion that everyone else with a 70-year limit will change it to match ours, particularly since the corporate lobbyists who influenced the copyright increase make more noise than public-domain advocates.

  2. Yes David, you’re right – this is one of those cases where we play leapfrog with other nations, mostly the UK, I believe. We extend terms 5 years beyond theirs, and then they “harmonize” a little past ours, and so forth.

    The fact that the US isn’t the only country with such terms does nothing to legitimize them, however. The purpose of copyright is clearly and unambiguously stated: to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. If longer copyright terms start to instead stifle that progress (as is happening more and more as there is less public domain material to draw from) then the fact that other countries have similar laws simply means they’re just as wrong as the US.

  3. I completely agree, bingle. My ultimate point with this piece (looking at it again, fairly unclear) isn’t to say that popular consensus on copyright term legitimizes ours. On the other hand, it developed out of my personal unclarity about where the frequently-referenced Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act put the US in relation to other countries.

    If the US were the only country with a 70-year term, repealing the act (as often suggested on the blog) would have a much greater effect– at least immediately– than if the laws of other countries had to be changed as well.

  4. From what I understand, the majority of the world population live in a country with a Life+50 regime. Also, the Life+70 regime of the US is currently a theoretical one, since no works will automatically return to the public domain before 2014. Since all works published before 1923 are in the public domain in the US, the US are currently experiencing Life+90 at best (assuming authors died on January 1, 1923).

    Having said that, the clear cut-off date of 1923 and the registration requirement that was in effect until recently is good for people like Project Gutenberg-volunteers, because it makes doing copyright clearance research a reasonable thing.

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