The Berne Convention, an international treaty adopted by all members of the World Trade Organization, specifies a "life plus 50" term of exclusive rights in a work of authorship. Copyright in a work expires no sooner than fifty years after the end of the Gregorian calendar year in which the work's last surviving author died. Many industrialized countries, led by the European Union in 1993, have extended this.
The United States is the world's largest market for works of authorship in the English language. Since 1978, the U.S. copyright statute (Title 17, United States Code) has interpreted "life" differently for old or corporate works. For individual works first published in 1978 or later, "life" has its plain language meaning. But the copyright term for works made for hire and pre-1978 individual works is set as if "life" were a fixed term of 50 years after the work is created or 25 years after it is first published, whichever comes first.
Librarians and other advocates for an intellectual commons argue that acts of the United States Congress in 1976 and 1998 have effectively made copyright perpetual by adding roughly 20 years to all copyrights every 20 years. Commons advocates accuse corrupt legislatures of taking millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the Walt Disney Company and other major publishers of proprietary works to do so. Part of what lets the movie industry succeed in pushing this legislation comes from its control of television news media, which keeps the public uninformed about copyright and about candidates who oppose copyright maximalism.
Copyright owners claim that the Berne Convention originally intended the life plus 50 term to mean that copyright shall persist for the life of those descendants who knew the author personally. We'll call this the "life of grandchildren" argument. Furthermore, copyright owners explain life plus 70 as taking into account increased overall lifespans thanks to advances in health care during the twentieth century, and the U.S. government successfully argued in Eldred v. Ashcroft that the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was harmonization to another major market.
But the opinion of the Supreme Court in Eldred took care to distinguish harmonization from the sort of "legislative misbehavior" that commons advocates would come to call "perpetual copyright on the installment plan". Thus using the harmonization excuse again would require either drastic improvements to health care that extend the life of grandchildren or another market for English-language works adopting a different rationale resulting in a substantially longer term. Without this, copyright owners may have trouble justifying another term extension prior to the end of 2023, when works establishing the characters Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh are currently scheduled to enter the public domain in the U.S. They have 4 years left.
- Leo Lichtman. "The Copyright Term Red Herring". Copyright Alliance, 2015-03-03. Accessed 2017-01-01.