You Think U.S. Copyright Law is Bad?

uk-ipo-logoThe United States definitely has its share of copyright issues.

We have a very powerful copyright lobby that, among other things, has been able to obtain a seemingly never-ending series of copyright extensions that have kept ever-older works out of the public domain. We’ve been ground zero for the music industry’s lawsuits against file sharers and were also among the first to pass the controversial anti-circumvention laws that prohibit users from circumventing DRM schemes, even for otherwise legal uses.

Yes, U.S. copyright law has its problems. But before we begin to play “The Grass is Greener” we need to stop and actually look at the laws that exist in other countries. As it turns out, on average at least, the U.S. copyright system is not that bad, at least when considering the rights and interests of users.

If you don’t believe me, consider the following points before packing up and moving abroad.

Fair Use

Fair use has its flaws, it is only a defense against an infringement and the only way to be certain that a use is fair is to be sued for it and then emerge victorious in court. However, those of us in the U.S. should be grateful that we have it as the idea is almost wholly American.

Other countries have what is known as “Fair Dealing” (Warning: Wikipedia link). Though it sounds similar and has many of the same concepts built in, fair dealing is almost always much more limited than fair use. Typically, fair dealing is limited by types of uses, usually news reporting, research and criticism.

The broad, flexible, open to interpretation fair use exemptions in the U.S. simply do not exist in most countries. Though the laws of other nations provide little extra clarity, they do, on the whole, provide much greater restrictions on use.

Crown Copyright

In the U.S., the central government is not able to hold a copyright interest in any work they produce. You can read that on the White House Web site.

This is for a lot of reasons.

  • Since taxpayers paid for the creation of the work, it makes no sense they should have any restrictions on its use.
  • To prevent the Federal government from using copyright as a means to prevent free speech.
  • To encourage broad distribution of works created.

Other nations, however, are not so generous. In the UK, as well as some other commonwealth nations, they have Crown Copyright, and other nations have similar provisions. Even Canada has a well-established crown copyright that asks people to obtain a license to use the work.

Such licenses are never required in the U.S.

Insane Notice and Takedown

Though the safe harbor provisions has been a source of controversy in the U.S., they, over the past 10 years, seem to have been viewed as a net positive. Though there have been abused by more than a few organizations, they have also enabled the boom in user-generated content and, as the Diebold case showed, laws preventing abuse of the takedown system do have teeth.

However, as the same provisions made their way around the globe, many of the protections that make the law work in the U.S. were not included. Based on the WIPO treaty, other nations took a very different tact on the law.

Take a look at the EU. There, anyone can file a copyright complaint, not just the copyright holder. One does not have to swear under penalty of perjury and one does not even have to provide good contact information when filing a notice. Though different nations may have added elements of this back, a 2004 study found that 70% of hosts complied (PDF) when being demanded to take down a public domain work.

The study, legally, could not have been performed in the U.S. as the DMCA would have made it dangerous to file false notices, even for research.

Conclusions

Does the U.S. have it’s share of copyright problems? Absolutely. If we look at it strictly from the point of view of user’s rights, the U.S. certainly has a lot to worry about. Though many of the more controversial aspects, including anti-circumvention, have made their way elsewhere too, the U.S. does have its share of relatively unique copyright issues.

Of course, the most unique of those issues impacts copyright holders. After all, we’re the ones that have to register with an outdated and outmoded copyright office before we can sue for infringement. We are also one of the few countries that does not grant copyright holders moral rights protections in their work, lessening creative control and naming rights.

The U.S. is no copyright utopia, nowhere near, but it isn’t as bad as many make it out to be, at least as far as user rights go. Simply put, the grass isn’t much greener anywhere else and if we’re going to update and improve copyright law, both for rights holders and users, it is going to have to be an international effort.

This country-by-country approach is pure folly in the Internet age.

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