Reclaim the Public Domain

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We, the undersigned, while believing in the importance of copyright, also believe in the importance of the public domain. We believe the public domain is crucial to the spread of knowledge and culture, and crucial in assuring access to our past. We therefore write to petition you to reconsider major changes that you have made to the copyright system. These changes unnecessarily threaten the public domain without any corresponding benefit to copyright holders.

In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA). That Act extended the term of all existing copyrights by 20 years. But as Justice Breyer calculated, only 2\% of the work copyrighted during the initial 20 years affected by this statute has any continuing commercial value at all. The balance has disappeared from the commercial marketplace, and, we fear, could disappear from our culture generally.

For example: The vast majority of film created during the 1920s and 1930s is not commercially available. Because of the CTEA, much of it remains under copyright. Yet because it is often impossible to track down the copyright owners for these films, commercial and noncommercial preservationist and distributors cannot safely restore and distribute these films. And because these films were made from nitrate-based stock, by the time the copyright to these films expire, most of them will have dissolved.

The same is true with many other copyrighted works that are no longer commercially available. Though the Internet could facilitate the distribution of this work if the copyright owners could be identified, the costs of locating these copyright owners is wildly prohibitive. Schools and libraries are thus denied access to works that otherwise could be made available at a very low cost.

Such burdens on access to work that has no continuing commercial value serves no legitimate copyright purpose. It certainly does not "promote the Progress of Science" as the Constitution requires. We therefore ask Congress to consider changes to the current regime that would free unused content from continued regulation, while respecting the rights of existing copyright owners.

One solution in particular that we ask Congress to consider is the Public Domain Enhancement Act. See http://eldred.cc This statute would require American copyright owners to pay a very low fee (for example, $1) fifty years after a copyrighted work was published. If the owner pays the fee, the copyright will continue for whatever duration Congress sets. But if the copyright is not worth even $1 to the owner, then we believe the work should pass into the public domain.

This legislation would strengthen the public domain without burdening copyright owners. It would also help clarify rights over copyrighted material, which in turn would enable reuse of that material. The law could thus help restore balance to the protection of copyright, and support the public domain.

We therefore call upon Congress to introduce this legislation, and to hold hearings on the benefits that it might have to reviving a vibrant public domain.

When technologists have given us a tool that could spread knowledge universally, we should not allow the law to get in the way. The law does so now. This Congress should change it.