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Sony Releases Dylan’s “The Copyright Extension Collection”

As the New York Times reported, the title of the album says it all. Apparently Sony has released for limited sale a number of old Bob Dylan recordings strictly for the purpose of retaining copyright. If Sony had not done so, the recordings would have fallen into the public domain.

The story makes me wonder about how we could better tailor our (in my opinion) overly long copyright term of life + 70 into something more workable. I’m not naive enough to think that we’re likely to shorten the term of copyright. But what about requiring publication of a work as a prerequisite to bringing suit (or perhaps monetary damages or injunctive relief) at any time after the death of the author? Or what about requiring publication within the last 5 years before suit for any work that is more than (for example) 35 years old?

The Dylan story suggests that Sony would not have released these recordings unless it was faced with loss of copyright. Presumably this was the case because a sufficient market for the works does not presently exist. Sony’s willingness to publish implies either that they think the chance of profit in upcoming years is reasonable or that there is intrinsic value in holding copyright to unprofitable recordings. Either way, I think it’s smart to consider how we might use the threat of a diminished copyright right to get better public access to presently unpublished works.