IRIS Plus 2012-2: The Lifespan for Copyright of Audiovisual Works

Author: Christina Angelopoulos, Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam

Published: 01/03/2012

Intellectual property rights are one of the tools, if not the tool for rewarding and stimulating creativity. They are attached to many assets which form part of our cultural heritage but which cannot be tagged physically as personal property, as could be, for example, paintings or sculptures. Thanks to intellectual property rights, authors and other rightsholders can cash in on their creative contributions to the making of tangible and intangible audiovisual products in the same way in which others derive money from selling the physical carrier of audiovisual works that they own.

A person's capacity to hold rights and own goods ends with death, as does their capacity to hold intellectual property rights. In the same way that rights to real estate, tangible goods or shares of a company pass on to the respective heirs, most intellectual property rights can be inherited. This is commonly the case for economic rights, which are the very rights which allow for the monetisation of intellectual products. However, given that intellectual property rights honour the creativity of persons, the question arises as to how long after their death their creativity should be protected.

The length of the term of copyright protection determines how long the use of a copyrighted audiovisual work requires licensing. Once it enters into the public domain, the work or parts of it can be digitised, reproduced or made available by everybody and for all uses – no further questions to be asked, no remuneration to be paid. Conversely, as long as the term of copyright protection for an audiovisual work runs, persons interested in using it must secure licences and governments must provide adequate legal frameworks to accommodate this "trading with copyrights". As long as a work is copyright protected, it can contribute to the economic well-being of the rightholders and their heirs.

The Lead Article of this IRIS plus examines the European legal framework for determining the length of intellectual property rights protection for cinematographic and audiovisual works as well as certain problems of its transposition into national law. The Lead Article is mirrored by the final Zoom chapter which undertakes the same task for the rules applied in the United States. Both chapters put into evidence the difficulties of defining the proper (and possibly different) time spans during which the various rights potentially attached to an audiovisual work may be protected. The fact that legislators on both sides of the Atlantic have intervened several times to address different generations or even genres of works further complicates the story. It may become quite tedious if the envisaged use of a film requires the investigation of the term-systems of several countries in Europe or, even worse, in Europe and the United States.

The Related Reporting Section of this IRIS plus goes beyond the issue of term protection and illustrates related legislative or policy projects that are currently in the European Union pipeline. Among them are the draft for an orphan works directive and the Recommendation on the Digitisation and Online Accessibility of Cultural Material and Digital Preservation.