The Implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty

Pop Quiz: The Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty has not been:

  1. Publicly shared with the general public
  2. Distributed to all Members of Congress
  3. Made part of the Copyright Law of the United States
  4. Ignored by the tech press or major corporations
  5. All of the Above

Now that Net Neutrality seems to be moving forward in a way that’s good for American consumers, content creators and online companies, all those groups can focus their concerns on the Trans-Pacific Partnership – even though we officially don’t know what’s in it. If you’ve followed tweets from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), tech bloggers and vloggers, there’s a lot of concern about the impact that the TPP could have on copyright and trademark law here in the US. However, almost everything that’s know about the TPP is based on rumors and leaked documents that are over a year old. One recent rumor is that the TPP will extend the term of copyright in the US by twenty years.

Right now, under US law, copyright lasts until fifty years after the author’s death. The TPP will reportedly extend that to seventy years after death. Remember, copyright exists in anything that’s written on paper, or photographed or filmed, or saved to a hard drive. That means that a story written by __[someone who died in 2014]__ would be protected by copyright until 2084, and nobody else could turn it into a film, vlog or vine, make and sell art inspired by it, adapt it into a stage play or ballet, or write a prequel or sequel.

Had a seventy-year (or even a fifty-year) copyright term existed in the 1930s, we wouldn’t have The Wizard of Oz, or Wicked as a novel or a musical. Sherlock, Elementary and Ian McKellan’s Mr. Holmes wouldn’t be airing on our TVs this year. Can you imagine Mark Twain’s books being under copyright until 1980? Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was written in 1843; it would have been under copyright until after Britain entered World War 2, but because it was already in the public domain, it was filmed as a silent movie in the UK in 1901 and filmed/produced at least nine more times before 1940. Characters from stories are our culture, and we should be able to share our interpretations of them after a reasonable time has passed.

The Founders decided to allow authors and inventors to hold copyright “for a limited time”, but a term of nearly two centuries, which will exist if life+70 years is enshrined in law, is, for all intents and purposes, unlimited. A 14 year term that can be extended for 14 more years is probably too short, and these days nobody believes that a term should be less than an author’s lifetime. But life plus twenty years, with an extra twenty year renewal term if the work is still being actively used, with a cap of 100 years after a work’s creation/publication is much more reasonable and in-line with modern communications and creativity.

Other topics of concern from the IP section of the leaked TPP drafts indicate that if it becomes law in the US, there may be negative impacts on Americans’ freedom of speech and due process, as well as privacy rights. It’s also possible that the privacy rights issues are short-sighted enough that they look to the Internet and online reputation and privacy issues as they were when the treaty drafting began almost a decade ago. Forcing adoption of laws and policies that are so out of date may impact the ability of companies, nonprofits and clever individuals to innovate with technology. At a time where STEM education is so vital in our classrooms, do we want to adopt a treaty into law that puts archaic constraints on content and information? With Net Neutrality likely to be fully in place in the near future, a backward-looking treaty does not move content and information creation into the future and allow for innovation and development that we want and deserve.