[Reader-list] Gone with the copyright law

Shivam shivamvij at gmail.com
Thu Nov 11 19:21:39 IST 2004

Any reax, friends?

  American fundamentalism   
  By Yuval Dror 
  Haaretz (Israel) | 11 November 2004

The Gutenberg Project is an international enterprise whose goal is to
post classic literary works on the Internet. Since works of literature
are protected by copyright, the project is careful to post only works
whose copyrights have expired and are now in the public domain.
Israel has its own version of the Gutenberg Project: the Ben-Yehuda
Project. Who can fail to love such a project? It is entirely staffed
by volunteers, and there is no law-breaking. Just a lot of love for
texts and literature.

But the Gutenberg Project's basic premise - taking material that is in
the public domain - is now in danger. The New York Times reported this
week on the project's Australian branch, which put the full text of
Margaret Mitchell's classic "Gone with the Wind" on the Internet and
almost got slapped with a lawsuit.

Mitchell published her novel in 1936. Under American copyright law,
the work is protected for 95 years, or until 2031. When this law was
first enacted, at the end of the 18th century, the period of
protection was only 14 years, with an option to extend it for an
additional 14 years. The copyright period was extended twice, and in
1909, the law was amended to state that works such as "Gone with the
Wind" would be protected for 28 years, with an option of extending for
an additional 28 years. But since the mid-1960s, the copyright period
has been extended 11 more times, and it now stands at 95 years (or 70
years after the author's death).

Not every country agrees that this is how works of culture should be
treated. In many European countries, the copyright expires 50 years
from the date the work is published. Thus Elvis Presley's early songs
will enter the public domain in Europe in another two months.

In Australia, and in Israel as well, the copyright expires 50 years
after the author's death. Mitchell died in Atlanta on August 16, 1949.
Thus according to Australian law, her signature work entered the
public domain in 1999, so there was no reason not to publish it on
Project Gutenberg's Australian Web site.

But far be it from a country such as the United States to allow its
copyright holders to lose the profits they are supposed to be able to
collect almost a century after the work was published. The Australian
site received a letter from lawyers representing Houghton Mifflin, the
company responsible for Mitchell's intellectual property, which
demanded that the site immediately remove the link to Mitchell's text.
The Gutenberg Project volunteers gave in.

This incident raises questions that will occupy Internet buffs for
years to come. For instance, can the long arm of the American law
oblige a group of Australian volunteers to obey it? It turns out that
the answer is yes. Trade agreements between the U.S. and Australia
oblige the Australian authorities to protect the intellectual property
of American artists. Because of similar agreements, Israel is also
obligated to fight copyright violators who distribute pirated discs of
American songs.

The U.S. is one of the world's most zealous protectors of its
citizens' intellectual property. But this American zealotry has
recently crossed the line into fundamentalism. At the urging of
American record and film companies - some of the wealthiest U.S.
corporations, which donate millions of dollars to politicians - the
U.S. enacted draconian laws that have no parallel elsewhere in the
world, whose sole goal is to supply protection that borders on the
absurd to cultural works that in the past would have entered the
public domain.

Moreover, the U.S. obligates countries with which it signs trade
agreements to include a pledge to protect American intellectual
property in these agreements. And since no one wants to pick a quarrel
with the U.S., in practice, the world is required to enforce American

Will American copyright law become the law of the Internet? Does this
imply that the most extreme law in every field will be the one that
binds every law enforcement agency on the planet? It is hard to
exaggerate the danger to cultural freedom worldwide, which has found
expression over the Internet, if the answers to these questions turns
out to be affirmative.

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