Unfortunately, two recent changes in copyright law have severely hampered our ability to make productive use of older works. First, Congress has repeatedly extended the length of copyright terms. In 1998, Congress extended the term of most extant copyrights to the life of the author plus 70 years. As a result, the normal process whereby older works fall into the public domain has been stopped; today many works created more than 80 years ago are still under copyright.
Second, Congress has eliminated what are called copyright “formalities.” Until the 1970s, authors needed to register their works with the copyright office, affix a copyright notice to every copy they printed, and renew their copyrights after a fixed period of time. These requirements were a small price to pay for the exclusivity of copyright protection, and they ensured that anyone could determine with reasonable certainty whether a given work was under copyright and who the copyright holder was. Unfortunately, between 1976 and 1992, Congress phased out these requirements. Federal copyright protection is now granted automatically when content is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, and no copyright notice or renewal is required to keep them.
The Cato Institute
June 30, 2008