U.S. Congress Evaluates Copyright Reforms With Cross-Border and Trade-Related Implications

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet held a hearing on a number of proposed reforms to U.S. copyright laws that have a number of potential implications for internationally focused businesses. Reforms that were discussed at the Tuesday hearing included termination rights, resale royalties, moral rights and copyright terms. Among those who testified included representatives from the U.S. Copyright Office, the Songwriters Guild of America, Inc. (“SGA”), the Future of Music Coalition (“FMC”), the American Enterprise Institute (“AEI”),and the Creative Commons USA (“CC”).

Although a substantial amount of testimony given at the hearing was related to particular U.S. industries needs (e.g. music and visual arts), potential U.S. termination rights, resale royalties, moral rights, and copyright term reforms has implications on nearly all businesses both in the U.S. and abroad.

To better understand the potential implication of these reforms, it is best to evaluate them individually.

Termination Rights

One of the reforms discussed at the Tuesday hearing that arguably has the greatest likelihood of being implemented, as well as trade-related importance, is termination rights. Under 17 U.S.C. § 203 of the U.S. Copyright Act, a creator of a copyright-protected work (“author”) may cancel the transfer or license of rights to the work 35 years after its transfer or license to another party. However, the elimination of such rights has been recently proposed in U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations. In the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) negotiations, the U.S. has proposed IP Chapter terms that would arguably eliminate termination rights in TPP member states (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States and Vietnam). This means an author from a TPP member state would be unable to terminate the transfer of rights or license of their work in the U.S. or other TPP member state(s) as currently provided under U.S. law.

Representatives from the FMC and CC testified on this issue, both calling for upholding existing termination rights under U.S. law. The FMC went even further and explicitly called on Congress to ensure that such termination rights continue to be made available in international agreements the U.S. enters such as the TPP.

Whether the U.S. decides to uphold or eliminate termination rights will have global implications for international businesses. If the U.S. decides to uphold termination rights in the U.S. Copyright Act and FTAs, it would provide content-producing businesses greater rights and flexibility in protections in their works, both in the U.S. and abroad. In contrast, eliminating termination rights would provide businesses who purchase rights to protected works greater assurance that their ownership or rights to such works will be protected.

Regardless of the benefits or drawbacks of eliminating termination rights, it remains unclear from the Tuesday hearing how Congress will decide to proceed.

Resale Royalties

Tuesday’s hearing also included testimony on whether the U.S. should adopt resale royalty requirements. Some of the U.S.’ major trading partners, such as Australia, the EU, and Russia among others, require that authors (in most cases, visual artists) be entitled to royalties for the resale of their works. However, the U.S. has yet to adopt such measures despite their voluntary recognition in Article 14ter of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (“Berne Convention”), and several U.S. federal and state legislative attempts to do so. The main argument against such royalties is that oppose the first sale doctrine, which generally allows for the unrestricted domestic secondary sale of copyright protected works.

During Tuesday’s testimony, the sole testifying entity, the U.S. Copyright Office, stopped short of calling for the U.S. adoption of resale royalty laws. The Copyright Office recognized the disadvantages visual artists have compared to other authors in recouping the true value of their works, and that over 30 countries have now adopted resale royalty requirements. However, their testimony stated that mandated resale royalties were not the only means to remedy such disadvantages as voluntary initiatives and best practices could also be utilized, and that the true benefits of a resale royalty regime is difficult to quantify.

Based on such timid testimony, it appears unlikely that the U.S. will seriously consider adopting mandated resale royalties as currently provided in EU and other countries in the near future. The lack of a current and potentially future mandated U.S. resale royalty regime emphasizes that visual artists and other authors will need to find alternative means in order to obtain effective compensation for their works.

Moral Rights

The Tuesday hearing also evaluated to what degree the U.S. should adopt stronger moral rights protections. Moral rights, as detailed under Article 6bis of the Berne Convention, gives an author non-economic rights in a work even after the transfer or sale of their work including the right of attribution that allows them to object to the distortion, mutilation or modification of their work. Currently, the U.S. only extends such rights to visual artists under 17 U.S.C. § 106(A) and in an arguably less encompassing manner. In contrast, many major U.S. export markets such as Australia, Canada, China, and EU have more robust moral rights protections.

None of those who testified on moral rights argued for an explicit extension in the U.S. despite acknowledgements of its benefits. The SGA and FMC stressed that freedom of speech and fair use considerations should be balanced with any moral rights considerations, and the CC highlighted the difficulties and costs of establishing exclusive attribution rights. Based on these testimonies, it appears unlikely that the U.S. will adopt moral right reforms in the near future.

Copyright Term

Lastly, but arguably the most contentious issue of this hearing was copyright term reforms, namely the period of time in which a qualifying work is entitled to copyright protection. Under 17 U.S.C. § 302, a copyright protected work is entitled to protection for the life of the author and 70 years after their death for a natural person author, and 95 years for works created by legal entities. Such copyright terms are well beyond international norms as Article 7 of the Berne Convention establishes copyright protection for the life of the author and 50 years after their death for a natural person, and 50 years for legal entities. The U.S.’ extended copyright term is controversial as it is argued to harm the public through unnecessary taxation and limits on creative freedom, especially as the U.S. has proposed that other countries adopt similar terms in FTAs such as the TPP and the U.S.-Australia FTA, just to name a few. Despite these criticisms, such extended terms give U.S. and other FTA member state authors and copyright owners longer copyright protections in their works.

The testimony provided in the Tuesday hearing varied widely as to whether the U.S. should amend its copyright terms, both in the U.S. Copyright Act and FTAs. The CC called for a reduction in copyright terms, while the FMC and AEI took a less argumentative stance by disagreeing with any term extensions. Contrastingly, the SGA rejected any term reductions. The CC was only group to identify copyright term issues in FTAs by highlighting widespread criticism towards the U.S.’ attempt to propose U.S. copyright terms in the TPP and the CC’s efforts against the same. However, the lack of a comprehensive rejection of the U.S.’ current copyright terms or more robust efforts to prevent their inclusion in U.S. FTAs means that any reforms to the U.S. copyright terms are unlikely.

What’s The Takeaway? The Tuesday hearing highlighted that the U.S. is at least evaluating copyright reforms that may harmonize U.S. copyright laws with other countries. Although it appears unlikely that the U.S. will adopt moral rights, copyright term or resale royalty reforms, the potential invalidation of termination rights does seem to be a potential possibility in the near future, especially in light of the U.S.’ TTP IP Chapter Proposal. Businesses and authors with substantial copyright portfolios should be aware of these reform efforts and adjust their copyright protection policies as needed in order to best protect rights in their works, both in the U.S and abroad.

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