by Jon Decker
An interesting intellectual property battle is brewing in South Africa wherePresident Cyril Ramaphosa has considered signing a bill that directly attacks American copyright holders — and the Trump administration has threatened retaliation.
South Africa’s Copyright Amendment Bill puts ‘America Last’ by effectively reducing copyright protections from the nation’s current standard — life of the author plus 50 years — to a new standard which only allows creators to contractually enforce their copyrights for 25 years from the date of copyright. That means artists losing control over their works during their own lifetimes, a huge step backwards in a country whose current standards are well below “the gold standard” of copyright protections here in the U.S. of life of the author plus 70 years.
Limiting copyright terms to less than the life of the author/creator violates a core property rights principal, which is that we have an ownership right in the product of our own minds. That principal has been well established for hundreds of years, going back to the great natural rights philosopher John Locke, who wrote in 1695: “for those who purchase copies from authors that now live and write it may be reasonable to limit their property to a certain number of years after the death of the author or the first printing of the book as suppose 50 or 70 years.”
Translation: America’s artists and publishers are already subject to a term of protection in South Africa that is shorter than American and global standards. We want to hold them to a higher standard on copyright protections, not a lower one that violates one of the core principles of intellectual property.
Trump’s trade team has responded to this legislation with some characteristically heavy-handed negotiation tactics. TheOffice of the US Trade Representativeannounced a new review of South Africa’s eligibility forGeneralized System of Preferences, or GSP benefits, which if revoked would lead to tariff increases on imports.
To be clear, this would be an unfortunate outcome — especially since the Trump administration recently made a great decision to pause some tariff collections as part of its economic response to the coronavirus. While we don’t want South Africa to slide on its commitment to compensate U.S. copyright holders, we also wouldn’t want to see higher taxes of any sort in the middle of a global economic crisis.
Cooler heads should prevail, and for that to happen South Africa should withdraw its attack on intellectual property rights and the U.S. should, in turn, step back from the brink of another all-out trade war.