Why do patents last 20 years, but copyright 95+?

I’m wondering why there’s such a huge time disparity between the two.

Because Walt Disney Inc. has enough $$$ to buy an entire busload of Congressmen.
(There may be some other reasons cited in that Wiki article, mind you.)

Yup, that’s about the long and short of it.

Also it’s a bit easier to prove that extending patent protection has a negative impact on consumers, but it’s a bit harder to show that for copyright.

The extension of copyright to match that of the European Union would have happened if the Walt Disney Company magically vanished off the face of the earth. The two systems had to be reconciled. And the EU wasn’t about to make it shorter.

Patents and copyrights both cover intellectual property, but the similarities end there. There’s no reason for them to last the same amount of time. Patents are designed to protect the initiation of a new idea or process. It is assumed that the world will change and force the creation of even newer ideas and that is considered to be a good thing that should be protected by limiting the length of time one patent can stifle innovation.

Words, on the other hand, are assumed to have power for long periods of time. A book can be reprinted in many editions. Even before the 1976 change a patent only lasted 17 years but copyright, with renewal, lasted 56 years. The difference made sense because every single thing about the money flow and the time at which the public benefits more from free access is different between the two wildly different systems.

SCSimmons, I need to tell you that anybody who accuses Walt Disney for this gets treated thereafter like somebody dropping Creationism into a discussion of evolution. It’s a giant neon sign that you don’t understand the issues. Disney continues to hold trademark over Mickey Mouse. Trademark is forever, as long as it is kept active, and far more powerful than copyright. (Yes, it is a third and again totally different system of intellectual protection with totally different laws.)

The long and short of it that separate systems have separate laws for separate reasons. You can’t apply the laws of one to any of the others and expect to have that make sense.

You could also make the argument that, for material items, competition is a good thing. You want inventors to profit from their invention, but you also want the benefit of competition in the marketplace to keep prices down and to encourage future improvements to old products.

Copyrighted material, on the other hand, is by definition unique. No one else has created the material, so competition is irrelevant.

Schoolhouse Rock


Doesn’t explain how to buy Congressmen. But it’s a start.

As Exapno pointed out, the extension had nothing to do with Walt Disney. Certainly Disney was in favor of it, but US law had to be set up to match European Law, and it would have happened without Disney.

If anyone is to blame, it’s Adolph Hitler. Mein Kamph was going to be public domain in 1995, so the Government of Bavaria lobbied to increase the copyright term from life + 50 to life + 70. Germany increased it, and got the Berne Convention to increase it, too. The US subscribes to the Berne Convention in international copyright cases; if it hadn’t increased the term there was a good chance they would not be allowed to be part of the Berne Convention and thus would not be able to sue for copyright violations anywhere outside the US.

Disney owned trademarks on Mickey Mouse and had used that in the past to stop others from using the characters. If copyright had lapsed on “Steamboat Willie,” Disney could sue anyone who made it available for trademark infringement and would have won (they had in the past, with some PD Mickey Mouse comic strips). So, ultimately, while the extension made things easier, it didn’t make any difference in their ability to protect their characters. You could not have use Mickey Mouse in a derivative work (other than a parody) without being shutdown for trademark infringement.

Really? I suspect the answer would be that you could sell “Steambot Willie”, you could even package it with a picture on the cover of Mickey and other characters, taken from a “Steamboat Willie” still, but any further use of the characters or in different forms would likely fall under trademark rules.

There are, IIRC, several bugs bunny cartoons in the public domain. This does not give anyone free reign to use Bugs however they like. No explanation why, except maybe time…


Once again, it seems this author has confused copyright and trademark; or maybe the copyright from newer productions still applies too.

But I do find it truly weird that a song written in the late 1800’s (Happy Birthday to You) is still going to be copyright until the 2030’s…

Ouch. I concede!

Yeah, yeah. Godwin’s Law strikes again. :wink:

Why? Are Hitler’s heirs popular in Bavaria? :confused:

Very nice people. Anyone would love having them as neighbors.

In this case, Bavaria was Hitler’s heir. They own the rights to Mein Kampf, which they keep out of print in Germany.

As indicated above, the difference between the three forms of IP is important. And they work for different reasons. One can argue the fine points of whether the periods assigned are fair or reasonable, but the different intents are clear.

Patents have a very clear reason for existing. They are a two edged thing, and not everyone patents an invention for just this reason. A patent is a deal between the inventor and the government. The deal is this. In return for granting the inventor protection for their invention for a period of time, the inventor gives up all secrecy about the invention. The patent document is required to contain enough information to allow anyone else skilled in the appropriate art to be able to reproduce the invention. The inventor must be fully forthcoming about the entire invention. Anything that is not disclosed is not protected. Indeed a patent can be invalidated for not disclosing important information. At the end of the patent period the invention, as fully described, is available for anyone to use, and published for all to see (including rival inventors) right from the moment that protection was given. And thus the country as a whole benefits. The converse would be a trade secret. There is no protection for a trade secret (bar action if someone commits some illegal act to steal it) - if someone else invents the same thing they can use it too. So the patent system acts to promote innovation, both by providing a reward (protection) but an incentive to continue to invent and improve - the timeout and disclosure to your competition.

Copyright one might argue provides some security for a creative act. That it continues after the death of the author really means that an author has something of value that can be left to his heirs. One could argue that there is a point where the public good would be better served by extinguishing copyright earlier or later, but it does provide some level of incentive to actually invest the time into the creative act. The deal that benefits the public good is perhaps less clear cut, but is clearly there. Creative works don’t have the sense of innovation that inventions do. And by their nature, creative works are already fully disclosed.

One might argue that the original time periods for IP were defined when human lifetime expectations were rather shorter than they are now, so perhaps - perhaps - there was justification for extending them.

Do they really need to use copyrights to do that? :dubious: Germany already has the strictest laws on the planet prohibiting pro-Nazi material. I was under the impression that Mein Kampf was already illegal in Germany under criminal law (except as an academic work).

Actually, I’ve wondered whether today’s faster pace of technological change merits shortening the length of patents. Protecting an invention until the entire area of technology is obsolete could work against the goal of spurring innovation.

The book cannot be published in Germany, but it is not illegal to have a copy or buy it from a foreign source.

I think any adjustment on patent length would have to be based on industry. Drug Company like Pfizer are struggling because blockbuster drug like Viagra is coming out out patent protection soon. Apparently a lot of “obvious” derivation has already been tried so finding/producing new drugs is not as easy as it used to be. I am guessing that’s why they shut down one of their biggest research center in England.

Thats why in conjunction with patent as incentive for companies to innovate government gives research grants to universities for stuff that have no immediate commiseration value but lay the ground work for future innovation.

$ is the issue.

In the US (and in the western countries in general), the copyright interests are heavily concentrated. The movie and record companies have the MPAA and the RIAA. A lot of the major publishers like Time-Warner control large fractions of their markets, etc. Plus companies straddle publishing, movies, records and TV.

This gives them tremendous influence both in the US and abroad. (So referring to the US “having” to go along with the others is seriously ignoring the core cause.)

Note that there isn’t a large, well funded group of businesses that can bribe politicians to not extend copyright lengths. So it is a very unfair fight.

OTOH, the patent interests are less unified with major players on both sides. E.g., there are large pharma companies that make generics. They routinely fund fights to stop extensions on patents for drugs.

Another difference between the two areas also highlights how big a role $ plays. There have been several laws, like the DMCA, passed in recent years to add penalties and extra legal avenues to pursue copyright violators. Almost nothing comparable has been passed to help patent holders.