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Copyright Law Changes that May Affect You

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Congress passed a lot of copyright legislation in 1998, reflecting the lobbying efforts of many special interest groups.

Whether you are an Internet service provider, boat designer, or someone who regularly trolls the public domain, you'll find a few surprises. Below is a scorecard.

The Public Domain Takes a Holiday: The 20-Year Term Extension

Winners: copyright owners
Losers: the public

With many priceless catalogs on the brink of falling into the public domain -- for example, animated features of Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh and the music of George Gershwin -- copyright owners such as Disney and Time-Warner petitioned for 20 more years of copyright protection. The result was enactment of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which extends the time period during which copyrighted works are protected. Extending copyright protection harmonizes our laws with European countries, where copyright owners already enjoy longer protection. In summary:

  • For works created on or after January 1, 1978, the copyright term is life of the author plus 70 years (instead of life plus 50 years).
  • For works for hire (and works published anonymously and pseudonymously), protection is extended from 75 to 95 years.
  • For unpublished works and works in their renewal terms, protection is extended for an additional 20 years.
  • No expired copyrights will enter the public domain until 2019.

Where to learn more: The text of this act can be downloaded at the Copyright Office Web site at http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/. Click on "The Copyright Term Extension and Music Licensing Act."

Revenge of the Silent Macarena: The End of Small-Business Music Royalties

Winners: restaurants, bars, and retail establishments; the National Restaurant Association
Losers: songwriters, performing rights societies (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC)

Previously, businesses using anything larger than a home stereo system had to pay songwriters for the right to play the radio or television during business hours. These payments, known as performance licenses, were paid to performing rights societies collecting the money on behalf of songwriters. The National Restaurant Association has been lobbying for years to change how these rules apply to small businesses. As part of this effort, in 1995 the NRA exploited the strange tale of a girl scout troop performing the silent Macarena because a performance license hadn't been paid.

Under new rules, which are tacked on to the term extension law described above, restaurants and bars smaller than 3,750 square feet or retail establishments smaller than 2,000 square feet that play the radio or television in their establishments won't have to pay fees. Regardless of size, all restaurants, bars, and stores will be exempt from paying fees if they have no more than six external speakers (but not more than four per room) or four televisions measuring 55 inches or less (but not more than one per room). These rules apply only to establishments that play radio and television. Establishments that play prerecorded music such as compact discs will still be subject to licenses. Some legal experts have argued that the small-business exemption may violate international treaties, and a court challenge to the licensing exemption is expected.

In addition to these provisions, the Copyright Term Extension and Music Licensing Act ensures that disputes of these fees can now be heard in all 12 federal circuits. Before the act, challenges to performing rights fees could only be filed in one court in New York City.

Where to learn more: The text of this act can be downloaded at the Copyright Office Web site at http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/. Click on " The Copyright Term Extension and Music Licensing Act." For a copyright owner's view of this law, review the ASCAP commentary at http://www.ascap.com/legislation/.

Last updated: May 17, 2000




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