After a lot of complicated negotiations, Canada, the United States, and Mexico have signed a new treaty that will take the place of the old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Now the three countries’ trade relations will be governed by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. The effects of this agreement are large and multifaceted, and have been covered extensively in the media. But one of the smaller concessions Canada made for USMCA will have a major impact on the creative arts in the coming decades.
Under USMCA, copyright laws in Canada will protect intellectual property (that is to say, the results of creative work) for 70 years after their creator’s death, rather than the current 50. With the old number, we were in line with the least restrictive copyright laws in the world — now we share the same duration as our American neighbours.
While this may sound like a dull subject, that’s 20 years longer that our artists of today have to wait to (legally) release their own takes on preexisting works. Works released into the public domain give artists freedom to create and sell their work that incorporates any aspect of the original, under the understanding that those older texts are now treated in a similar way to legends that can be freely passed around, rather than as a commercial product owned by one person or entity. A prime example of this kind of adaptation is Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 book (and the subsequent film adaption), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The character of Sherlock Holmes also recently entered the public domain (after a lengthy legal battle from Arthur Conan-Doyle’s estate), meaning that anyone can freely write, market, and sell works involving the character.
Copyright law is incredibly complicated, as rights can be sold to corporations which enables them to last longer, and different countries have different rulings on what is and is not allowed. But I’m of the strong belief that 50 years is more than enough time after an artist’s death for their work to enter the public domain. What new innovation will musicians of the future be able to come up with once the popular music of the 1960s and 1970s starts to become freely available for use? What could it mean for video games as that industry ages? By extending copyright an extra 20 years, we’re just delaying artistic innovation.
The argument in favour of longer copyright is that it protects the legacy of works, and ensures the families of creators continue to receive payment for their work. Disney is notorious for fighting to increase copyright laws, as the threat of their intellectual property (namely Mickey Mouse) entering the public domain clearly terrifies them.
The internet has been a strong driving force in favour of the free sharing of content and information, both legally, through the widespread adoption of opt-in licenses like Creative Commons that allow authors to easily offer their work up for sharing, reuse, and adaptation, and through the sharing of content without its owner’s permission (which some see as a way to weaken the grip of corporations over artistic content).
Speaking as a writer, it is a difficult tightrope to walk — obviously if I sell a book, I want to make money from it, and if it keeps selling after I’m dead, I want it to keep helping my family. But a reasonable limit has to be set. If corporations like Disney keep succeeding in having government change the rules, it’s possible none of our contemporary media will enter the public domain in ours, our children’s, or our grandchildren’s lifetimes. And what are we losing by holding that back?
While creators can choose to release their work for adaption and reuse, the onus shouldn’t have to be on creators. Extending the duration of copyright is a step in the wrong direction, a concession that will hinder Canada’s creative people for decades down the line. Copyright has a critical role to play, but it needs to have limits, and by agreeing to this clause of the USMCA, the Canadian government is telling us that it values corporate profits over creative expression.