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Anatomy of a Copyright Coup: Jamaica's Public Domain Plundered

Correction: Although the information that we had to hand at the time of this article suggested that the law took effect from January 1962, section 137A of the Act as subsequently published online clearly indicates a commencement date of January 2012. This means that the law is only retrospective for three years, not for 53 years. We apologize for the error. Our article remains in its original form below.

A bill extending the term of copyright by an additional 45 years—almost doubling it, in the case of corporate and government works—sailed through the Jamaican Senate on June 26, after having passed the House of Representatives on June 9. The copyright term in Jamaica is now 95 years from the death of the author, or 95 years from publication for government and corporate works. This makes it the third-longest copyright term in the world, after Mexico and Côte d'Ivoire respectively with 100 and 99 years from the death of the author.

Worse than this, the extension was made retroactive to January 1962. Besides being the year when Jamaica attained independence, 1962 also just so happens to have been the year when Jamaican ska music (a popular genre in its own right, but also a precursor of the even more popular reggae) burst onto the international music scene. The parallels with the extension of the U.S. copyright term in the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” are quite eerie. But, worse than what happened into the U.S., the retrospective effect of the law means that works that have already passed into the public domain in Jamaica are now to be wrenched back out again. Jamaica will now be one of the last countries in the entire world to enjoy free access to works that are already in the public domain in the United States—such as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, from 1921.

If Jamaica hoped that this measure would bring in additional royalties for its musicians from overseas markets, then the tactic that it chose to pursue was doomed to failure from the outset. Foreign users of Jamaican copyrights are not bound by the extended copyright term; only Jamaicans are; but conversely, Jamaicans are now obliged to honor foreign copyrights for the full extended term.1 As opposition spokesperson on culture Olivia Grange put it during debate on the new law, “what will happen is that we will, in fact, be paying out to foreign copyright holders in foreign exchange for the continued use of foreign works in Jamaica, while our own rights holders will only benefit up to the 50, 70 or 80 years that exist in other countries”. So all that this measure has accomplished is that citizens of Jamaica, a developing country, will be paying more money into Hollywood's coffers, while Jamaica's own rich cultural heritage draws in not a penny more in return. Yay?

This measure is so stupid on its face that it is a wonder it passed through parliament at all. But what pains us even more is that it was deemed a trivial enough change to the law that it went unreported in the press until it was already a fait accompli. We could've spotted it earlier, and we're not proud of missing it. But it also came as an unwelcome shock to all the other activists with whom we work, including the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, whose members in Jamaica have suffered a sudden and severe setback to their mission to preserve and disseminate the early written records of newly-independent Jamaica.

That fact that proposals to lock up copyright works for an additional two, three or four decades or more isn't even considered newsworthy is something that we want to urgently change—especially now that six countries around the Pacific Rim are facing that very prospect, all at the same time, with the impending conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that could enshrine a life plus 70 year copyright term in stone. Copyright term extension is not a positive sum, or even a zero sum game. It enriches big media corporations, not struggling artists; it impedes libraries, archives, educators and people with disabilities; and it locks away an entire corpus of works that belong in the public domain, preventing them from being repurposed by a new generation of artists and innovators (particularly in countries, like Jamaica, that lack a “fair use” right).

Jamaica has sadly fallen into the copyright trap, and it may be too late for it to escape. But it isn't yet too late for Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, New Zealand or Vietnam. Over the following weeks we will be highlighting the harmful effects of the extension of copyright terms in some of these countries, and providing an easy mechanism for you to use to take action, in these final days of the negotiations of the TPP.

On our TPP's Copyright Trap page we link to more articles about how the threat of copyright term extension under the TPP impacts users around the world.

  • 1. This would not be the case if Jamaican law followed the “rule of the shorter term”, which would allow it to honor foreign copyrights only for the term of protection that they enjoy in their home country. But it doesn't, so you can ignore this footnote.
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