Copyright Terms and Sonny Bono – The Surprising Link

What do copyright terms and Sonny Bono have to do with each other? Well, did you know that Sonny Bono has been the only (at least as far as I know) member of Congress to have a number one hit song on Billboard Magazine’s “Hot 100” list?  “I Got You Babe,” his famous duet with Cher, topped the charts for weeks in 1965.

As an entertainer himself, Sonny Bono was keenly aware of the importance of copyright law to authors, musicians, and other owners of creative works. As such, it should come as no surprise to learn that not long after Sonny Bono was elected to Congress, he became a champion for copyright reform.

What are Copyright Terms?

A copyright term is the length of time that a creative work is protected by federal copyright law. During this time, owners of registered copyrights have exclusive ownership and control of their works. This means that they have complete control over who can copy, distribute (sell or give away), perform (a play or a song), display (at a museum), or adapt (novel to screenplay) their works.

During the copyright term, others who wish to use the work must have the owner’s permission to do so. When the term expires, the work automatically enters the public domain. Public domain works are no longer protected by copyright law and are available for anyone to use in any manner without the original owner’s permission.

Why Reform Copyright Terms?

Since the late 1970s, the duration of the copyright term in the United States was the natural life of the author plus 50 years. In cases where the author is an organization or company (usually when an employee of the company creates something on the company’s time – and dime), the term was 75 years from the date the work was first published (i.e., made available to the public) or 100 years from the date it was created, whichever was shorter.

In the early 1990s, many European countries began increasing the length their copyright terms to life of the author plus 70 years, or something similar. Because of this rapidly changing international marketplace, American copyright owners lobbied Congress heavily in order to extend the length of copyright terms in the United States.

Longer copyright terms would allow copyright owners to keep their works from falling into the public domain for a longer period of time, effectively giving them more time to enjoy the economic fruits of their creativity.

But not all were in favor of this reform. Many voiced concern that longer copyright terms would make it unreasonably difficult for present and future authors to transform – or adapt — old and nearly forgotten works into fresh, new, and arguably more relevant and economically viable works. It would simply delay progress.

Interestingly, some critics argued that the Walt Disney Company, one of the chief proponents for longer terms, merely wanted to keep some of the earliest Mickey Mouse movies from becoming part of the public domain and mocked it as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

The Law Today: The “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998

As the debate over copyright terms grew louder, Sonny Bono and 11 other members of Congress drafted a bill to address this growing concern. Tragically, before Congress was able to take any real action, Sonny Bono died unexpectedly from complications resulting from a skiing accident. In his memory, several members of Congress nicknamed the bill the “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.

The “Sonny Bono Act” officially amended the copyright term for individual authors to life of the author plus 70 years. The term for corporate works was amended to 95 years from the date of creation or 120 years from the date of publication.

The Bottom Line

Your copyrighted works may be protected under the law for the duration of your life plus 70 years, but they must first be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.