There’s a lot of talk, especially in the U.S., that modern copyright law favors large corporations and copyright societies almost exclusively. While some of the talk is grossly exaggerated, there are definitely many ways in which large corporations have an unfair advantage on matters of copyright.
Though the fact copyright affixes to a work upon creation certainly is a big help, the truth is that the law definitely, at least in places, has a pro-enterprise slant.
On that note, here are five quick examples of how copyright law and the current copyright climate, at least in the U.S., favor larger copyright entities and not the little guys.
1. The Registration Requirement
Though copyright affixes to a work upon its creation, in the U.S., you can’t use the courts to enforce those rights until you register it. That will cost you $35 per registration and will take a good chunk of your time.
The smaller you are, the more the time and money sacrifice to register your work hurts. A struggling artist might have to scrape together the money for a registration (if they even know to do so) but larger copyright holders largely keep their registrations up to date at a cost that is reasonable to them.
The larger you are, the easier it is to keep your registrations up to date, thus opening the doors up to additional damages and the ability to sue. In short, the more money you have, the better able you are to enforce your rights, even before you factor in the costs of suing.
2. Moral Rights
In most countries, you have what are called moral rights, which are rights that are affixed to a work in addition to traditional copyrights. These rights include the right to attribution, the right to object to certain uses of your and the right to refuse attribution if desired.
However, the U.S. doesn’t offer real moral rights protection, save in a very limited sense for visual artists. These rights were almost exclusively for smaller artists and original creators to make sure they had rights over their works even if they sold the copyright.
This doesn’t mean that other nations have it any better though as most contracts require creators to either surrender their moral rights or agree not to enforce them. However, in the U.S., usually you don’t even have those rights to surrender, meaning corporations who purchase rights to works don’t have to ask for these rights nor negotiate around them. This puts smaller content creators, looking to sell their work, at a disadvantage in many cases.
3. Weak Copyright Terminations
Though not an example of copyright holders being screwed, it’s an example of how laws supposedly aimed at helping the “little guy” end up having no meaningful benefit at all.
Copyright law does allow, in certain circumstances, authors of older works or their estates to terminate “bad” agreements after 56 years and reclaim the remaining 39 years of copyright. However, the usefulness of this is almost nothing as very few creative works have any value after 56 years, no matter how bad the deal was. Also, after 56 years of use, there’s almost certainly a legitimate divided interest in a copyrighted work, meaning the buyer still owns a large portion of it.
This was the case with the creators of Superman, which were supposed to be the perfect case study. There, a recent rulling split elements of the character between the creators’ families and DC Comics, meaning creators don’t own the rights to several key elements such as his ability to fly, his nemesis Lex Luthor and other attributes.
In short, copyright termination, supposedly a boon to individual creators, is useful only on rare occasions and, when it is, often comes with very large caveats due to the nature of the law. The result is that creators still have to make sure they sign the right contract the first time.
4. Copyright Expiration
On the surface, it appears individuals have it better when it comes to the length of copyright. A work of individual authorship has a copyright term of life of the author plus seventy years where a work of corporate authorship has a term of 95 years from creation.
However, there are two critical problems with this. First, you can’t predict how long your copyright will last as it is tied directly to your death. If you live 100 more years you have a whopping 170 years of copyright protection in your work. Die tomorrow and you have only 70.
The other issue is that all of your works have the same expiration date, regardless of when they were created. Works you made when you were 12 will expire on the same day works you make today and works you’ll make when you are 90. However, every work of corporate authorship gets 95 years from the date of creation.
Though the “life plus” system for copyright expiration is tempting for authors as it ensures no creator will outlive their copyright, it creates disparity in the works a person creates and makes it impossible to actually predict how long it will last. Since corporations don’t necessarily die, a life plus system was impractical for them and it probably isn’t entirely practical for individuals either.
5. Lopsided Enforcement
Want to use the FBI logo on your site or to protect your YouTube clip? You can’t. It’s only for members of the MPAA. Want to pursue criminal charges against an infringer? It’s unlikely any infringement you see will meet the criteria.
Though large corporations already have much more robust civil enforcement divisions, they can also call on the U.S. government to help out as well in many cases. However, almost no individual content creator can bank on that, unless they are part of a larger group.
Even customs enforcement, which is supposed to be available to all copyright holders who register (see above) almost exclusively targets the works of the major copyright holders, namely the movie and record studios as well as some software companies.
As a small content creator, you are pretty much on your own.
As mentioned above, these only apply to the U.S. but given how central the U.S. is to the world when it comes to copyright policy and enforcement, it’s easy to see how these problems can affect creators the world over.
In the end, if you’re a small, independent content creator, there are many ways that the law is tilted out of your advantage. However, don’t believe that it doesn’t mean bigger copyright holders don’t have some downsides as well. In another column I’ll explore those.
In the meantime, it’s important to note the way the current copyright law and climate is slanted against you, mostly so you can prepare for it.
It’s a scary world for small content creators and, in many respects, copyright law is not here to help.