The losing side in yesterday’s Men at Work music copyright court case, was found to have copied Kookaburra. This is a song the sheet music of which was published in 1934, that’s 77 years ago.

Under section 34 of the Copyright Act 1968 the duration of copyright in literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work lasts for the life of the author and for 70 years after the author’s death.

How did Australian copyright law reach this outcome, ie this long duration for copyright works?

Here’s a background and snapshot I wrote back in 1995 about literary work, at which time the 70 years I’ve mentioned used to be 50 years…

"magnavox_1895_demo_nyc_by_fritzi_scheff"“A teaspoon of copyright history sheds light on two questions raised in this discussion. I looked back to the origins of copyright while writing a recently published paper titled Economic Rights of Digital Designers: Multimedia in Context (email me if you want a copy). For this discussion the extract below touches these pertinent issues:

  1. What’s the origin of the TERM of copyright for laws derived from England?
  2. Which economic group had POWER in the first instance to gain protection (a clue, it wasn’t the authors)?

Prior to Gutenberg’s mid-15th century invention of the movable-type printing press, and up to 1709, there is no evidence that the law of England recognised principles comparable to our modern conceptions of copyright law. The monarchy and later bourgeois power elites strictly regulated or controlled printing of text and illustrations using various tax, libel, treason and patent laws until the emergence of the popular press in the early 19th century.

"mimeograph_1928_harris__ewing_collection"As printing set in train a pattern of intellectual, political, economic and ultimately social developments, the rising merchant class of booksellers and publishers successfully lobbied parliament which then passed the Statute of Queen Anne of 1709. For the first time the law recognised the concept of “authors” by giving assignees of their texts, usually booksellers, a statutory monopoly right in the nature of copyright for 14 years with a possible extension for a further 14 years. Artists still had to wait their turn for copyright protection.

Personally I favour shorter terms. My career began in 1983 with Australia’s oldest book publisher which owned and exploited a list of works first published at the turn of the century [Update: ie 1900]. Through clever repackaging of old copyrights a stack of money was made for the publisher and for the rights owners such as the great grandchildren of the authors. [Update: eg the estate of the famous Sydney author/solicitor, Banjo Patterson]

At the time and since then, in 12 years of specialisation in copyright licensing the term that continues to startle me is in fact seven years.

It is uncanny how often this “Biblical term” recurs in agreements for books, films and other works. The only conclusion I have derived is that in the market place owners and licensors of copyright feel that the economic life of works does not *generally* exceed seven years. Of course there are lots of exceptions.

I suspect many are prepared to regularly give or take licences for seven years because they don’t expect the work will have an economic life thereafter.”

I readily accept that for some works seven years is unfair. But life + 70 years is another extreme.

Contact us with any questions or requests.

Noric Dilanchian