A new front has opened in publishers' global war on the public domain. Lawmakers of Argentina's ruling party are proposing a vast extension of copyright terms on photography—from 20 years after publication to 70 years after the photographer's death. That means that the term of restriction of photographic works would be extended by an average 120 years.
The law would extend copyrights on works retroactively, so a lifetime of photos that are already in the public domain would be re-captured by copyright. That would bring about a huge amount of legal uncertainty over works that have already been shared, remixed, sold, and modified in innumerable ways. If this bill passes, many tens of thousands of photographs that have been uploaded into cultural archives, including Wikipedia, may have to be erased from the Internet or else they could face civil, or even criminal prosecution failing to do so.
This is why Argentinian digital rights organization, Fundación Via Libre has launched a campaign to fight back against this destructive term extension. They sent a letter to Argentinian lawmakers earlier this week, urging them to conduct proper, public-interest impact assessment and open it to public debate before moving forward with a bill that would have such sweeping impacts on the cultural commons. Now, EFF is one of 38 digital rights and access to knowledge groups urging Argentinian lawmakers to drop this proposal. The letter states (translated from Spanish):
Among the entities affected by the draft bill are museums, archives, and public libraries, as more and more of them digitize their collections and make them publicly available on the Internet. Projects such as the National Library's Trapalanda digital library, and digitization efforts made by the General Archives of the Nation of Argentina will be severely affected by the measure, and will lead to the removal of large amounts of photographs that are openly and publicly accessible on the Internet. Another harmed initiative would be Wikipedia, the online and community non-profit encyclopedia which currently provides free and open access to knowledge. Thousands of photographs that illustrates Argentina's encyclopedic articles of great importance would be eliminated, critically affecting users who use Wikipedia every day for access to knowledge and learning.
This is part of a long disturbing trend towards lengthening the international "norm" of copyright lengths to life of the author plus 70 years—two decades beyond what is required by international law as established by the Berne Convention. The Berne Convention requires life plus 50 years of protection for most works, but for photographs only 25 years from when they were taken, in a rare recognition of the qualitative differences between different classes of copyright work. Admittedly, this points towards an obligation to extend the term of protection for photographs—but only for 5 years, not 120.
This bill comes as we fight 20-year copyright term extensions in six of the 12 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where Hollywood has taken advantage of opaque trade negotiations to lengthen and ratchet up restrictions on cultural works behind closed doors.
Big publishers are working with policymakers to make these extensions seem like an imperative that must not be questioned for the sake of "protecting" artists' interests. But it's critical that we push back against this seeming inevitability that more and more culture will become locked up behind longer, ever more extreme restrictions.
If you're in Argentina, support Fundación Vía Libre and their fight against excessive terms on photography.
If you're in the United States, or in the handful of other TPP nations that is under threat from copyright term extensions, visit our TPP Copyright Trap page to find out how you can take action.