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Beyond a certain point, copyrights no longer act as incentives to create new works (particularly if they substantially outlive the authors). A large number of works were created in the 1920s with a maximum copyright period of 56 years. (already twice as long as the original copyright terms for the US). This was already extended to 75 years in the 1990s, with a life + 50 year term for new works. It the 1990s, it was extended again, to 95 years for old works, and life + 70 for new ones, and some in the entertainment industry are calling for even longer, or even perpetual, terms. The law was challenged in court, but eventually the Supreme Court decided not to overrule Congress on the matter.
Excessive copyright extensions, like the one recently enacted, are bad for the public, and do not help the actual creators of works either. Copyright protection already goes well past their own lifespan, and well past the time any of an author's children reach adulthood. Copyright extension also does nothing to encourage the creation of works that have already been published -- but it will apply to those works as well. While the US is now a few years into a 20-year freeze of the public domain, there is real danger it could be frozen much longer-- or even permanently-- with subsequent copyright extensions.
Concerned US citizens should write their legislators to know that they do object to copyright extensions, and that they are not the "uncontroversial, no-lose" bills their proponents claim to be. With the new extension, no further books will enter the public domain through copyright expiration until at least 2019, and books that could otherwise go online may languish in oblivion until then.
Because of the current lengths of copyrights, many books go out of print and fade into obscurity long before their copyright runs out. Recently, "orphan works" legislation has been proposed to let people use such works and make them available to readers again. I also encourage folks to write Congress to pass useful orphan works legislation, though in many ways it would be better to have reasonable copyright terms to begin with.
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