Fagundes & Perzanowski on Abandoning Copyright

Posted May 19, 2020
Photo by Ben Cliff on Unsplash

Authors Alliance is grateful to Nicolas Charest, Copyright Research Assistant, for providing this review of an academic article proposing a legal framework to facilitate copyright abandonment.

In a new article, Abandoning Copyright, Dave Fagundes, Professor of Law at the University of Houston, and Aaron Perzanowski, Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University, review the doctrine of copyright abandonment and suggest reforms to facilitate copyright abandonment and promote a richer public domain.

Copyright abandonment refers to the voluntary and permanent relinquishment of an owner’s rights in a copyrighted work prior to the expiration of the work’s copyright term. In general, an author abandons her copyright by forming an intent to relinquish her rights and engaging in an overt act reflecting that intent. Abandoned works become part of the public domain, free from copyright and available for anyone to use. Fagundes and Perzanowski propose that copyright law should facilitate the legal and administrative process of abandonment, suggesting that doing so would realign copyright law with the constitutional intent of incentivizing creation to enrich the public.

The authors acknowledge that abandoning copyrights prevents an author from extracting the economic value of a work that is derived from exploiting exclusive rights. In addition, an author who abandons copyright also gives up the ability to prevent uses to which they would object. However, the public welfare is greatly benefited as the work becomes freely available for anyone to access and use. As such, abandonment can encourage new creative production by making more “raw material” available for other creators to use in their own works, whether it be original creation or derivative works (the authors point to examples of multiple movie adaptations based on literary works in the public domain, such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood).

Fagundes and Perzanowski criticize the current state of the law surrounding copyright abandonment: The lack of a clear, reliable way to abandon copyright frustrates authors who wish to abandon their copyrights, and the practical effectiveness of abandonment is undermined by the lack of a broadly accessible record of abandoned works. The Copyright Act of 1976 contains no explicit provision on how an author may opt out of copyright law’s grant of economic rights. They also highlight that although the U.S. Copyright Office records notices of abandonment, it does not indicate whether such recordation is legally effective in actually abandoning the copyrights. Finally, they point out that the doctrine of abandonment is ill-defined and courts are inconsistent in their rulings, often mixing abandonment with other doctrines such as forfeiture or waiver. They ultimately conclude that these shortcomings might discourage authors who would otherwise be inclined to abandon their works because the practice appears inaccessible.

In light of the above, Fagundes and Perzanowski propose the following:

  • Courts should clarify the standard for copyright abandonment and distinguish abandonment from other related doctrines.
  • Courts should favor clear written and oral statements of intent to abandon and narrowly interpret all other forms of evidence of intent, especially those based on the physical disposition of copies of a work.
  • Congress should amend the Copyright Act to specifically provide for the power to abandon copyrights and dedicate works to the public domain and to define a standard and associated mechanism for abandonment.
  • Congress could empower the Copyright Office to define a standard for abandonment and develop administrative mechanisms for evaluating, recording, and publicizing notices of abandonment. This filing process should be free.
  • The law should clarify the public domain status of works subject to private dedication instruments like Creative Commons’ CC0 license, and a complete and authoritative registry should be developed to search for abandoned works.

Fagundes and Perzanowski also consider strategies to bend the incentives of copyright owners towards abandonment.

The full text of the article can be found here.