There's currently a weird legal situation where massively complex bodies of engineering/research work are only protected for 20 years through patents, but a simple drawing can be protected for 70 years after the author's death through copyright.

What is the logic behind such laws and what were the motivations behind implementing them into law?

  • 5
    @indigochild Almost every modern country allows copyright for author's life + X years and patents are protected for ~20 years. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 20:15
  • 5
    I agree with KC. This is a question about political economy. I believe that the difference is due to different profit motives for the different categories of things. Disney is dead set against anyone else ever being able to use Mickey Mouse, and they are willing to pay a lot of money for lobbyists to make that the law. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 23:09
  • 8
    Somewhat cynical, but probably one of the reasons: effective lobbying by those who benefit from copyright (they really need all the help they can get). They crazy copyright periods are pretty recent, and there seems to be a strong correlation between the size of the "copyright industry" and the length of copyright. Also, copyright/patents have very different history, which may explain the differences.
    – user11249
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 23:10
  • 5
    That hasn't always been the case, nor does every country have very long copyright - though I guess most do have those 70 years after the author's death. But for other things - like music - it may be shorter (Eg. Elvis Presley's first recording became public domain in my country a few years ago - 50 years after recording date). But in the US, it's the industry who pretty much writes these laws - and also donate massively to politicians - so they've been able to extend copyright into the ridiculous. It's not for the artists, but for the studios and such to make money from it indefinitely. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 21:35
  • 3
    @Carpetsmoker I think it's just as absurd to copyright works for far longer than the original author's life :) Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 14:33

8 Answers 8


Disney has significant intellectual property, Mickey Mouse and all of his friends, that they do not want to be public domain. A lot of sources say that Disney spent a lot of money lobbying for an extension to the copyright law, just before the copyright on Mickey Mouse ran out.

Of these sources, this one uses quality data to tell their story. Here are a few excerpts of the data I found convincing.

Watchdog records show that the Disney Political Action Committee (PAC) paid out a total of $149,612 in direct campaign contributions to those considering the bill. Of the bill’s 25 sponsors (12 in the Senate, and 13 in the House), 19 received money from Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner. In one instance, Eisner paid Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) $1,000 on the very same day that he signed on as a co-sponsor.

There is a graph showing the millions Disney has spent lobbying. The caption reads:

Since 1997 Disney has spent 87.6 million on lobbying- mostly to influence copyright legislations.

I have a hard time believing that Disney is the ONLY company who is lobbying to extend copyright law. I think that surely there must be other corporations with similar interests, who are also lobbying similarly. I have been unable to find convincing evidence that this is the case.

While researching to answer the question, I found a few brief references to other supporters, however these references are not backed up by solid evidence. Wikipedia says that composer George Gershwin's estate supported it, but does not cite their source.

All of this discussion of why copyright was extended only answers half of the question. Why weren't patents extended? I can speculate about this, but I have no real evidence.

  • This doesn't answer the question. It does not explain why patents weren't extended.
    – Brythan
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 3:32
  • I find the information to be incomplete (doesn't mention Time Warner, Universal, Viacom, the major professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB), and the family of slain singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez).
    – John
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 20:07

The official reason why we have copyright laws and patent laws is different.

"Copyright law" is about someone creating something, and nobody should be able to rip off the creator by copying it. If I write a book, you shouldn't be allowed to copy it. Just write a book yourself. Sell as many copies as you like, nobody's stopping you. The copyright protects me, but it doesn't stop you from doing anything except ripping me off. (There are situations where copyright may lead to historical works being lost, because some work may be under copyright, but nobody knows who the copyright owner is).

"Patent law" wants to prevent inventions from being kept secret. That's the purpose. So a deal is made: You publish the invention, and you get a short term monopoly. There is no claim that this monopoly is something you deserve, it's just the price that the public pays for knowledge of your invention. The time of patent protection should be the minimum that the public can get away with, while still getting the invention published.

Patents also affect others in a negative way. For example a genuine inventor who came a bit too late will not be allowed to use his own invention. Some patents could hinder a whole industry, and this has happened. So there is good reason to not allow patents to last too long.

PS. I find "x years after death" strange. Say two twin brothers each write a successful book at 20. A month later, one dies in a car crash, the other lives until 80. There's no reasonable logic why one book should have 60 years more protection than the other. And then the surviving brother writes another book at 80. Why should that book have 60 years less protection than the first?

  • 3
    But what is the interest of the government in protecting copyrighted works for so long? What's the benefit for society? Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 14:02
  • 3
    @JonathanReez - it offers creative workers incentive to produce their works, and all the parasites on those creative workers opportunity to get rich off of said creative workers works
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 14:09
  • 9
    @user4012 surely people would still create works if the copyright was more limited?.. Say, 70 years after creation, rather than 70 years after death. Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 14:10
  • 12
    @user4012 extending copyrights beyond their original intentions mainly benefits the corporations--not so much the actual artists.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 16:35
  • 2
    @blip - yep - thus, the snarky second half of my comment :)
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 16:49

The primary reason is that patents are broader than copyright. Take for example the Wheel of Time and Sword of Truth series of books. A large number of people have pointed out how the two series are similar, particularly the first couple books of Sword of Truth. But neither Robert Jordan nor his heirs have sued Terry Goodkind for violating copyright. By contrast, Apple successfully sued Samsung for having phones with rounded corners.

Copyright covers a work or excerpts from the work. Except in a few cases, it does not cover similar works that are written fresh. This makes a long period more manageable, as it precludes less activity during that period.

Copyright also is closely associated with a single author. Examples of authors losing copyright and therefore the ability to control their work raise sympathy. There isn't an equivalent single person who benefits greatly from the end of a copyright period. The benefits are spread out across many.

While individuals can get patents, most are sought by businesses. And even ones held by individuals are often licensed to businesses. So the same basic group of people are restricted by and benefit from any particular patent. This encourages more compromise with patents.

Patents are harder to understand than copyright. If I copy a book and sell it as my own work, that's easy to understand. But patent infringement can occur even without an implementation. And two items may look entirely different but still be covered under the same patent.

There are fewer ways to do tasks than their are ways to product works under copyright. If I write my own book or paint my own painting, I can be pretty sure that I'm not violating copyright so long as I don't actually copy some other work. Two people might easily choose to do the same patentable task in the same manner. The problem to solve chooses the implementation to some extent. So a long patent term precludes a competitors from performing certain tasks entirely.

  • 6
    Since this is politics.se and not law.se, I think something that should not go unmentioned is the extreme political lobbying (in US copyright law at least, which tends to trickle down to global copyright law) by Disney and other holders of well known, old copyrighted characters. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 23:32
  • Possible typo: "There isn't an equivalent single person who benefits greatly from the end of a copyright period" - did you mean "patent" here?
    – Bobson
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 2:07
  • @Brythan - Ah, I get what you were saying, now.
    – Bobson
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 19:57
  • 2
    Rounded corners aren't a patent issue...they are a 'trade dress' issue. I think there's also some misconceptions here about individuals vs. businesses. Most all patents submitted by people--though owned by businesses much of the time. Same is true for copyrights.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 23:07
  • @K-C yes, good point. Technically they are patents. Design Patents, however, are conceptually quite different than your 'standard' patent in that they are mostly decorative in nature and really apply more to trademark and trade dress...which is actually closer in nature to copyright. It's all a muddy soup, though.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 0:38

Patents have a shorter shelf life as they are usually based on technological innovation. Often, after 20 years, the patented innovation is moot.

Copyrights can be milked for decades and decades. Music gets reissued year after year. Comic book heroes get 'movie reboots' every few years. Fictional characters can become huge movers of merchandise.

As such, there's more money to be had in extending copyrights so more money has been put towards lobbying for extending them. The aforementioned Disney is perhaps the biggest contributor to that.

  • 4
    Comic book heroes are trademarked, not copyright restricted. I think there's also some misconceptions about technological innovation. When sufficiently broad, a technological innovation can matter for centuries. For example, consider a patent on one-click shopping. That still operates basically the same way now as when Amazon first introduced it. Or the patent on most any drug. Aspirin continues to be used today, long after the patent has expired. As do ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and sodium naproxene, which are alternative pain relievers.
    – Brythan
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 15:22
  • @Brythan yes, characters can be trademarked. But their 'story'--which tends to be the money maker--would be copyrighted. It all falls under the "Intellectual Property bucket", of course. I do agree that "when sufficiently broad..." a patent can be valuable, but note that that's a rather recent phenomenon--and one that has gotten a bit more push back as well. The lobbyists on that topic just haven't had the same amount of time as the copyright lobbyists. :) Same is true with pharma...lots of money to be had, but it's a more recent trend.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 16:30
  • @Brythan also note that the infamous "one click ordering" patent was really that rally flag over the recent push back on tech patents like that. A lot of people felt it was quite ridiculous that they even were able to get the patent in the first place.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 16:34
  • 3
    If the story was what was important, they wouldn't keep changing it in every reboot. And the idea that patents are somehow newer than copyright is nonsense. Patents are the older concept, dating back at least to 1450. Copyright arose in 1662 or 1709. The technological patent on the internal combustion engine dates back to 1823, well before Walt Disney. Again, still in use today, as are several revisions, e.g. the 1879 patent of Karl Benz (more famous when paired with Daimler and Mercedes). The water closet was patented in 1778.
    – Brythan
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 16:59
  • @Brythan the story doesn't have to be word-for-word. In terms of copyrights, the reboots really aren't different stories broadly speaking. Spiderman is always a boy who got bitten by a spider and wears a funny costume fighting crime. I also didn't say patents are newer. The broad tech patent and big money in pharma patents are newer phenomena.
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 17:08

It is worth noting that the purpose of patent law is to create an incentive for inventors to disclose the best mode to practice their inventions. Without patents inventions would likely be kept as trade secrets.

There are two downsides to discarding patents in favor of trade secrets: 1) Expensive-to-develop inventions which could not be protectable by trade secrets (like nearly every drug) would likely not be developed and 2) trade secrets can potentially last forever, so prices would not drop until something better was invented (read: no generic drugs).

So, patents grant innovators temporary monopolies in exchange for two things: The inventor must disclose how the invention works, and after 20 or so years the invention becomes public domain.

Copyright, on the other hand, is much more limited in scope than patents. Importantly, copyright cannot protect anything useful. Consider the case of Baker v. Selden in which Selden's widow sued Baker for copyright infringement because Baker copied and republished bookkeeping tables from a book that Selden published. After working its way to the Supreme court, the case was decided in favor of Baker because the bookkeeping forms were patentable, but not subject to copyright.

So, in brief, the reason why copyright can last longer is because it doesn't matter as much :)



Assuming you're asking about copyright vs patent in the US, I think the answer boils down to a few things:

  • A copyright typically covers something with artistic or intellectual value (a book, performance, sound recording, etc.) whereas a patent will usually cover an invention. As previously mentioned, these inventions can include life-saving drugs and technologies. -> Patented technologies can result in a monopoly where supply is artificially kept low to jack up prices. Like the members of the international petroleum cartel OPEC, drug companies in the U.S. (as well as the creators of other medical technologies) can take advantage of this arrangement by restricting the amount of a certain product to maximize profits. -> When patent law is restricted to more finite periods of time (20 years for some patents, or shorter in the case of others), it is less likely that (for example) a diabetic or asthmatic will not receive a vital drug at an affordable rate. Longer patent periods may incentivize innovation, but they do so at the expense of consumer affordability. ->In fact, the patent-derived creation of monopolies in the US is often used by critics of high prices for pharmaceuticals (especially in cases where drugs in the US are considerably more costly than the same drugs abroad). A common critique is that higher prices results in patients not being able to purchase vital drugs.
  • On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which an individual or the public are harmed by an unnecessarily long copyright protection. Given that most scientific research and scholarly work is published without copyright protection, access to this content is generally preserved. On the contrary, longer copyright periods have the potential to promote greater risk-taking in creative pursuits (writers and musicians have a greater incentive to create when they have a reason to believe they'll be compensated generously), so there is a considerable upside to something that may seem like a long period of copyright protection.
  • I would like to add the somewhat obvious caveat that the internet and other technology are making it more difficult to enforce copyrights, which lessens the incentive for artists to pursue them. This may not be a bad thing!

Finally, a tl;dr -- copyright protections rarely lead to negative externalities while a protracted patent protection can yield a monopoly and, in the case of the pharmaceutical market, can price patients out of the market for life-saving drugs.


Simple, cooperation have copyright monopoly spend more corruption money for longer time than companies use patent. In US, when country first have copyright and patent law, both 14 years long.

Many people in technology company engineers/scientists/mathematicians (very smart people) know creativity and innovation need strong, big public domain, let them build on work if other people, and develop new technology is hard. Patents slow develop technology and invention (and research show it, one example: Industrialization Without National Patents: The Netherlands, 1869-1912; Switzerland, 1850-1907). Long patent slow technology longer and increase cost, waste resource. Many industry create patent pools for sharing patents help prevent this problem. Some company even allow any person use patent like Tesla.

Develop characters, story, book, music, etc, is easy (good quality stuff people like is hard and luck), compare with research develop new technology. People in corporation entertainment industry: actors, musicians, artists, writers not understand how they use other people stuff and build on them. Entertainment corporation think they get more money from long monopoly (corporate welfare) and let them keep competition lower (and slow their industrys’ development). And their actors, musicians, artists, writers get no benefit from corporation's copyright. I never hear about copyright pool or company allow any person use their copyright.

Research show copyright is too long: Productivity Commission 2016, Intellectual Property Arrangements, Inquiry Report No. 78, Canberra. http://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/intellectual-property#report

and cause creativity much harm and cheat every person:
Theft: A History Of [Western] Music https://law.duke.edu/musiccomic/


What is the logic behind such laws and what were the motivations behind implementing them into law?

there may not be one as laws differ from one jurisdiction to another.

their duration is a compromise between encouraging innovations (so that patent or copyright holders can gain economically from their investments in creating such assets) and encouraging innovations (so that patents or copyright can be put to actual use to benefit all human beings).

as to copyright vs. patents, copyright tend to be on more abstract things that do not have as significant of an impact on our daily lives, and patents tend to be more "applicable". as such, you want to have a shorter life for patents.

I actually think a shorter life for patents allows faster returns on investments so if I'm a patent holder, I will welcome a shorter life (to an extent) so I can enjoy the fruit of my labor sooner/fuller.

  • "there may not be one as laws differ from one jurisdiction to another." - Laws may differ somewhat, but the Berne Convention sets copyright standards that most countries have ratified, and provides for a minimum of life+50. In contrast, TRIPS sets a minimum patent standard of just 20 years. So you'll find copyrights are much longer than patents almost everywhere.
    – D M
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 23:25
  • How does a shorter patent life allow for faster ROI?
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 16:38

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .