The recent ruling that Happy Birthday to You is in the public domain has put a lot of focus on copyright terms in the United States. After all, if a song that has roots going back more than 115 years can be seen as copyright protected, just how long do works remain under copyright?
The answer, of course, is a long time. In the United States, for a work created today, the copyright in that work will either last the life of the author plus 70 years or, if the work is of corporate authorship, will last either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
However, copyright terms are not uniform across the world. Though the Berne Convention set minimum terms for its signatories, those minimums only extend 50 years after the death of the author. Many countries, including the U.S. have chosen to extend their copyright terms beyond that.
So where in the world does your copyright last the longest? Where is the last place your work will enter the public domain? The answer might surprise you.
Before we look at the nations of the world, we have to set some ground rules as different works often enjoy different terms depending upon when they were created and who created them. This is because copyright terms are constantly in flux and works of corporate authorship are often treated differently than works of individual authorship since corporations don’t “die”, making a “Life +” system for a copyright term ineffective.
The easiest way to address this was to simply pick a single work and, to that end, I’m choosing this work. This post.
The facts about the work are that it is a work of individual authorship (myself), created on September 23, 2015. It is also a literary work that was published electronically on its date of creation.
With those rules in mind, the question is simple: Where will it enter the public domain last if its terms remain the same everywhere?
Though I’m normally reluctant to use Wikipedia as a source, Wikipedia has a great map highlighting the copyright terms across the world.
Looking at the map, some things become immediately clear.
First, the United States is far from alone with the Life + 70 rule. Other countries, including Russia, Australia, Brazil, France, Germany and many others use the same term.
However, it also shows that Life + 70 is not the longest term, far from it.
Spain and Colombia, for example, have Life + 80 years as their default term, adding on a full decade to the term. (Note: This was an error. Spain currently has a Life + 79 term, though it was life + 80 for a brief stint between 1979-1987. Thanks Mario!).
Still, even their terms are shorter than the Ivory Coast, which has a term of Life + 99 and, Mexico, which has the longest in the world at Life + 100.
So, 29.5 years after your copyright has expired in the U.S., it will still be valid in Mexico where your heirs can, theoretically, enforce those rights.
In Mexico the extension happened 12 years ago in 2003 when Congress voted to extend the economic rights (as opposed to the moral and attribution rights) in a work of individual authorship from Life + 75 years to Life + 100.
However, the move was unusual because, after the term ended, the work didn’t simply lapse into the public domain as we think of it. It doesn’t become simply free for everyone to use. Instead, the government is able to charge and collect fees for the use of the work.
(Note: The above portion appears to be inaccurate as the final act actually calls for works to enter the public domain after the term ends. The other points remain accurate.)
The move was heavily criticized by people such as Lawrence Lessig, who said Mexico was abolishing the public domain. Still, the move was sought after heavily by rightsholders and collection societies within the country, who pushed for the legislation in order to secure a copyright extension.
It is worth noting that the extension and other changes are not retroactive, meaning it only applies to newly-created works.
As far as why Mexico is home to the longest copyright term, the reasons are unclear. The law is likely at least partially a product of the legislative climate in Mexico but the most important element is likely that, in 2003, copyright extensions were still not particularly controversial, making it possible to pass one such as this without much uproar.
Needless to say, it would be much more difficult to do this in 2015.
Still, the Life + 100 has come up a few times, specifically with regards to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The controversial treaty has over a dozen Pacific rim nations, including United States, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, negotiating on various trade-related issues, including copyright.
According to leaks, Mexico has been pushing to make its Life + 100 system part of the treaty itself, requiring other nations to adopt it.
Whether that will come to fruition though, remains to be seen and Mexico clearly has an uphill battle as other potential signatories want significantly shorter terms.
All of this being said, it’s unlikely this will remain the case for the life of the work. I’m 35 years old and the average life expectancy in the U.S. is approximately 80 years. Within the next 145 years, a great deal can happen. New copyright extensions, new treaties and new legislation are going to keep the term of copyright in flux all over the world.
Still, it’s an interesting thought experiment to ponder where in the world this will lapse into the public domain first and note that, even after it does, it won’t be free to use. Instead, it will be the Mexican government who has the right to earn revenue from it.
In the end, until there’s complete harmonization of copyright law across the globe, there will likely be some place on earth where your copyright will last longer than anywhere else. Today, that country is Mexico (and nearly the Ivory Coast). Tomorrow though, it could be elsewhere.
This is just another reminder of why it’s important to follow changes in copyright law, no matter where they may be happening.