Reform of the Copyright Act

Congressman Sonny Bono played an integral role in the passage of legislation that extended the copyright terms set forth by the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act, essentially prolonging the amount of time all copyright-eligible works remain out of public domain.

Summary of Event

The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act was one of the last of a series of legislative acts in the twentieth century that allowed the United States to maintain the intellectual property standards set forth by the international agreement known as the Berne Convention Berne Convention and the World Intellectual Property Organization World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) while affording holders of copyrights in the United States greater potential for earning economic benefits by protecting their rights relevant to producing and publishing works. The act was developed and promoted by Congressman Sonny Bono of California. Copyright Term Extension Act (1998)
Sonny Bono Act (1998)
Copyright law, U.S.
[kw]Reform of the Copyright Act (Oct. 27, 1998)
[kw]Copyright Act, Reform of the (Oct. 27, 1998)
[kw]Act, Reform of the Copyright (Oct. 27, 1998)
Copyright Term Extension Act (1998)
Sonny Bono Act (1998)
Copyright law, U.S.
[g]North America;Oct. 27, 1998: Reform of the Copyright Act[10190]
[g]United States;Oct. 27, 1998: Reform of the Copyright Act[10190]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 27, 1998: Reform of the Copyright Act[10190]
[c]Communications and media;Oct. 27, 1998: Reform of the Copyright Act[10190]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Oct. 27, 1998: Reform of the Copyright Act[10190]
Bono, Sonny
Bono, Mary
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;copyright law

Prior to 1998, the last major revision of the U.S. Copyright Act Copyright Act (1976) took place in 1976. The 1976 reform was prompted by the development of new technologies and the membership of the United States in WIPO, which required U.S. compliance with the mission of that organization, along with U.S. participation in the Berne Convention. WIPO, an agency of the United Nations, was formed to encourage the creative endeavors of citizens of member countries by providing a system to protect intellectual property while promoting creativity and innovations that contribute to economic development.

When it became effective, the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act superseded any provisions set forth by previous copyright acts. The 1976 act was the first to offer coverage to unpublished works, and it granted permission to library staff and patrons to photocopy copyright-protected works for purposes of scholarship, preservation, and interlibrary lending.

The first U.S. Copyright Act was passed in 1790, shortly after the U.S. Constitution (1787) was adopted, but the law has undergone relatively few radical amendments, considering its purpose, the changing scope of works to which it offers protection, developments in technology that affect the nature of works, and the needs of the American public in terms of fair use and reasonable access to works. Additional copyright acts were passed in 1831, 1870, 1909, and 1976. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was a major amendment of the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act.

The years 1909 and 1976 saw important changes to the U.S. Copyright Act. In 1909, copyright protection was extended to “all works of authorship.” In addition, the length of time a work was covered by copyright increased to twenty-eight years with possible renewal for the same number of years, for maximum coverage of fifty-six years. The 1976 Copyright Act sought to address the need for creative protection of works made using new technologies, such as motion pictures, radio, and television. Most important, the 1976 act amended the terms of copyright to the life of the author plus fifty years for works created by individuals and seventy-five years for works for hire, or those created for or by corporate entities.

The language of the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act outlined works eligible for copyright and the subject matter they might address. It also defined copyright-relevant terms such as “exclusive rights,” “copyright term,” “copyright notice,” “copyright registration,” “copyright infringement,” and “fair use.” In addition, the act gave permission to library staff and patrons to make photocopies of copyrighted texts for the purposes of scholarship, preservation, and interlibrary lending.

Before Representative Bono and others took an interest in copyright term extension, changes in U.S. copyright law were usually generated by the involvement of the United States in international organizations whose purpose was to protect the intellectual and cultural products of member nations. By 1998, the United States was a member of both the World Intellectual Property Organization and the Berne Convention. The Berne Convention called for member nations to establish copyright protection that lasted for the life of the author plus fifty years, which was the standard the United States had adopted by the time it joined the organization in 1988.

Sonny Bono was the Republican representative for the Forty-fourth Congressional District of California from 1995 to 1998. Prior to his involvement in politics, Bono was known as part of the popular music duo Sonny and Cher, Sonny and Cher who had numerous hit records in the 1960’s and 1970’s and were featured on their own television variety show from 1971 to 1974. Presumably, Bono’s background as an entertainer and his reported disdain for the interference of bureaucracy in entertainment interests were among the reasons he decided to champion a bill to extend the term of copyright. Before the bill could be passed, however, Bono died in a skiing accident on January 5, 1998. The congressman’s widow, Mary Bono, won a special election to fill his seat in Congress and continued to push legislation for the Copyright Term Extension Act.

By 1998, many works that had been created in the 1920’s or earlier were due to be released into the public domain, meaning that individuals wishing to use, copy, or otherwise distribute the works could do so without seeking permission from the owners of the works’ copyrights. Included in this group of works were many created by the Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney Company Representatives from Disney and throughout the entertainment industry began to appeal to Congress for a measure to lengthen copyright terms. Of particular interest to the Walt Disney Company was the copyright of a 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon that was set to expire in 2003. On January 27, 1998, the 105th Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act, and President Bill Clinton signed the act into law on October 27, 1998.


The Copyright Term Extension Act added 20 years to all term provisions set forth in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. Essentially, works that were created before January 1, 1978 (the date on which the 1976 act went into effect), and were still covered by an original or renewed copyright were granted protection for 95 years, as opposed to the 75 specified in the previous copyright act. Works created after January 1, 1978, were covered for the life of the author plus 70 years, an increase from 50 years. For creations by multiple authors, the copyright would expire 70 years after the last remaining author’s death. Copyright coverage for anonymous and pseudonymous works and works for hire increased to 95 years from the date of inception or creation, or 120 years from the first year of publication, depending on which date was earlier.

Unpublished works were also covered by the Copyright Term Extension Act—if works had not been published or copyrighted before January 1, 1978, the copyright protection was the author’s life span plus 70 years, and copyright would not expire before December 31, 2002. If the work had been published before December 31, 2002, the copyright would be set to expire no sooner than December 31, 2047.

Minor adjustments made to the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act in 1998 included changes concerning determinations of coverage eligibility of recordings made before February 15, 1972; the termination of grants and licenses; copyrights in cases where authors are presumed dead; and reproductions by library and archive staff and patrons, who were allowed to treat works in their last twenty years of copyright protection as if they were in the public domain. The Copyright Term Extension Act did not provide retroactive coverage for works already in the public domain as of October 27, 1998.

Overall, the Copyright Term Extension Act granted artists and other creators greater control over their works. With this amendment to the 1976 Copyright Act, the United States exceeded the minimum copyright standards put in place by international organizations dedicated to the protection of rights to intellectual property. Further, the 1998 act promoted scholarship and preservation by allowing the staff and patrons of libraries and archives greater freedom to make copies of copyrighted works. Copyright Term Extension Act (1998)
Sonny Bono Act (1998)
Copyright law, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Bettig, Ronald V. “Critical Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of Copyright.” In Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy of Intellectual Property. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Presents the history of copyright in the United States as an introduction to an analysis of copyright from a political and cultural point of view.
  • Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Details the idea of authorship from its roots in eighteenth century Great Britain to the late twentieth century. Discusses how authorship became fundamental to the concept of intellectual property.
  • Samuels, Edward. The Illustrated Story of Copyright. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Documents the history of copyright from its American inception to late twentieth century applications related to modern media technology. Explains the relationship between creativity and property rights.
  • Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Discusses the nature of modern copyright laws as antithetical to how copyrights were originally intended to be. Argues that modern laws actually prevent some creative individuals from contributing to the collective culture.

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