Why Even Doctor Who Has Trouble Following Copyright

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and to celebrate a special episode will be broadcasted simultaneously worldwide. With such a landmark, and the increased focus on the original episode, some have speculated on its upcoming passing into the public domain. Alas, even a Gallifreyan would find modern-day copyright laws Byzantine and overly complex, so what chance do mere mortals have?

doctorwhoLast month, a post on Slashdot suggested that the early episodes of Dr Who will soon fall into the public domain.

But in copyright nothing is ever so simple. In fact, even a TimeLord’s brain, capable of dealing with the intricacies of time and space, would find it a complex subject.

At the heart of the assertion is that in the New Year the first episodes of Dr Who will fall into the public domain. However, the reality isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. While the broadcast copyright will expire, the other copyrights in the episode will still exist. This means that the broadcast may well fall into the public domain but the episode itself won’t.

Under the UK’s 1956 Copyright Act, broadcast copyright expires 50 years from the end of the year when a show was first broadcast. This means that the first six episodes (the four comprising An Unearthly Child – the first story – as well as the first two of the seven episodes in The Daleks) will expire 50 years from the end of 1963, on January 1 2014.

However, the episode as a whole won’t be in the public domain. That’s a whole lot more complex.

Copyrights for the episodes themselves expire at the end of the year that is 70 years after the death of the following persons, whichever comes last:

– The principal director
– The author of the screenplay
– The author of the dialog, or
– The composer of music specially created for and used in the film

Since the director of the first four episodes, Waris Hussein, is still alive, the 70 year clock hasn’t even started. Likewise, Christopher Barry, the director of the majority of the Dalek’s episodes, is also still alive. So we’re looking at 1 January 2085 as a realistic earliest date (assuming neither die in the next month, and they’re the last surviving).

Legal blogger William Tovey has done some investigation on the topic and found that the earliest definitive date an episode drops into the public domain will be The Aztecs (the sixth story of season 1) in 2083. However, if (still living) script-editor Donald Tosh didn’t contribute to the dialogue, then The Time Meddler (season 2, story 9) will beat it into the public domain in 2057, followed by The Smugglers (season 4 opener) in 2068.

And this is where even the Gallifreyan brain goes crazy.

Ninety-four years before the first Doctor Who episode drops into the public domain in the UK is just nuts, and that’s not the actual first episode. That will have been under copyright for at least 130 years before entering the public domain. And this all depends on the term not being extended again.

Worse, this is only for the UK. Copyrights in every other country will be calculated using their own systems and timescales, and one is left with the belief that the real reason time travel was invented concerned perpetual copyright.

So while people in the UK will be able to share the broadcasts come January 1, in order to do anything more they’ll need to wait at least 45 years, while people in other countries will have to run the gauntlet of their own local copyright laws.

The complexity and extended term length is enough to drive anyone interested in honesty and fairness crazy. It’s a no-brainer to suggest that a paragon of virtue like the Doctor, more interested in doing right than following the letter of the law, would have real trouble following copyright law as it’s currently written around the world.


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