1976:  Congress notes that, because technology had advanced so much since 1909, they should take a look at how copyright law has accommodated it.  Congress overhauls the entire operation, extending the term of copyright to “the life of the creator plus fifty years.” The act also repeals the 1909 “notice of copyright” clause, meaning any work, formally published, automatically fell under its jurisdiction. It granted holders the rights to “reproduce, create derivative works, sell, perform or display” their work however they saw fit. This is basically the framework for modern copyright law, regulating everything from CD burning to how frustrated you’re allowed to get when you hear your favorite band on a commercial.

The act also introduces the concept of fair use wherein, based on a variety of factors, copyrighted material may be used without the notification or permission of its owner. Weird Al Yankovic, for example, has built a respectable career out of little more than a genius lyrical wit, virtuosic accordion playing and fair use.

1998:  The Copyright Term Extension act, a/k/a the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a/k/a the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, extends copyright terms to “the life of the creator plus seventy years.” The CTEA also affected the terms of works published prior to the Copyright Act of 1976, extending their previously-untouched protection to 95 years. This effectively puts a freeze on works entering the public domain, the post-copyright legal zone that lets people do whatever they want with the work. This is what makes it legal to find free digital copies of early literary works

2001:  Cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig,seeing an inadequacy of the way fair use treats computer reproduction, founds Creative Commons, a licensing system that permits creators to chip away at the otherwise all-encompassing copyrights that are imposed upon their work.A creator can now choose precisely which acts require their permission (creating derivative works, etc.).

2003:  The United States Supreme Court upholds the CTEA as constitutional in Eldred v. Ashcroft. Lessig, the primary counsel for the plaintiff, argued that, “If Congress can extend copyright terms so extensively like this, then what’s the point of copyright terms?” The Supreme Court’s argument, boiled down to, “Congress has always extended copyright terms. Why should they stop? Also, as long as the term is not explicitly ‘forever,’ we should be fine.”


Lessig, while crushed by the defeat, had been pushed into the limelight as a leader in the movement against inordinate copyright restriction. Eldred v. Ashcroft, he claimed to me via email, was the “trigger event” for the free culture movement.

In 2004 Lessig published Free Culture, a book that served as both a mission statement and a rallying cry. It coins the term “free culture” as a sort of umbrella for the ideal end result of the trouble he and others have had with modern copyright law. Though Lessig has recently stepped out of the free culture arena and shifted his attention on political corruption, the fight for fair copyright law is something he still takes very seriously. When asked what the strongest coup in favor of free culture has been, given the immense success of free culture projects such as Wikipedia and his own Creative Commons license, he replied, “We don't yet have coups. We have a movement that is slowly demonstrating to the world the importance of free culture.” And he added, “We are winning, and if we work very hard, we will prevail.”

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