Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

15 years ago, Congress kept Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. Will they do it again?

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US copyright laws have become distorted through the influence of major corporations to lock up intellectual property forever, even if the corporation had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation. Of course, Walt Disney did originally create Mickey Mouse (plus ripped off many folktales from the public domain and then copyrighted everything in sight). Timothy Lee has a good article on the overall situation and issue:

For most of history, a great character or story or song has passed from its original creator into the public domain. Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and Beethoven are long dead, but Macbeth and Oliver Twist and the Fifth Symphony are part of our shared cultural heritage, free to be used or re-invented by anyone on the planet who is so inclined. But 15 years ago this Sunday, President Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which retroactively extended copyright protection. As a result, the great creative output of the 20th century, from Superman to “Gone With the Wind” to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” were locked down for an extra 20 years.

It was a windfall to the families and corporations that owned these lucrative copyrights. But it meant these iconic works would be off-limits to those who wanted to reuse or reinvent them without permission. And hundreds of thousands of lesser-known works aren’t available at all, because there’s no cost-effective way to obtain permission to republish them.

The copyright extension Clinton signed will expire in five years. Copyright holders like the Disney Corp. and the Gershwin estate have a strong incentive to try to extend copyright extension yet further into the future. But with the emergence of the Internet as a political organizing tool, opponents of copyright extension will be much better prepared. The question for the coming legislative battle on copyright is who will prevail: those who would profit from continuing to lock up the great works of the 20th century, or those who believe Bugs Bunny should be as freely available for reuse as Little Red Riding Hood.

Longer and longer

Today, copyrights can easily last for more than a century. Things were very different when America was founded. In America’s original copyright system, protection only lasted for 28 years. By the mid-20th century, Congress had doubled the maximum term to 56 years. Then, in 1976, Congress overhauled the copyright system. Instead of fixed terms with a maximum of 56 years of protection, individual authors were granted protection for their life plus an additional 50 years, an approach that had become the norm in Europe. For works authored by corporations—Hollywood blockbusters, for example—copyright terms were extended to 75 years.

The 1976 legislation granted a retroactive extension for works published before the new system took effect. The maximum term for already-published works was lengthened from 56 years to 75 years. That meant that any work that was still under copyright in 1978, when the new system took effect, was eligible for an additional 19 years of protection. Without the term extension, works published between 1922 and 1941 would have fallen into the public domain between 1978 and 1997.

Instead, those works remained under copyright, providing a windfall to the owners of iconic copyrighted works such as the original Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willy,” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” When the 1990s arrived, the holders of those older copyrights began agitating for another extension. Copyrighted works from the 1920s were scheduled to begin falling into the public domain again in 1998, and copyright interests wanted Congress to stop that from happening.

Following Europe’s lead

“There was not a single argument that actually can stand up to any kind of reasonable analysis,” says Dennis Karjala, a law professor at Arizona State who emerged as a de facto leader of the opposition to the law. The supporters of the law, Karjala says, were “basically the Gershwin family trust, grandchildren of Oscar Hammerstein, Disney, others of that ilk”—that is, holders of copyrights in old works that were on the verge of expiring.

Supporters of the extension pointed to Europe. In 1993, the European Union added 20 years to the term of European copyrights. Under European law, American authors would only enjoy longer copyright terms in Europe if the United States followed Europe’s lead and adopted “life plus 70” copyright terms.

“It didn’t seem like there was any reason why American creators should be at a disadvantage vis a vis their European counterparts,” says Preston Padden, who represented Disney in the late 1990s and is now affiliated with the University of Colorado Law School. “The old disparity invited mischief, like American creators artificially creating legal domiciles for Europe in order to gain the benefit of the longer license term.” And, advocates said, if Congress was extending terms for new works, it would only be fair to extend terms for existing works as well.

Critics pointed out that extending copyright terms retroactively wouldn’t benefit the public. After all, William Faulkner, George Gershwin and Walt Disney had died decades earlier. Granting longer copyright terms for their existing works couldn’t cause them to produce any more masterpieces.

“To suggest that the monopoly use of copyrights for the creator’s life plus 50 years after his death is not an adequate incentive to create is absurd,” wrote Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) in a 1996 report for the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The real incentive here is for corporate owners that bought copyrights to lobby Congress for another 20 years of revenue—not for creators who will be long dead once this term extension takes hold.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2013 at 9:16 am

Posted in Art, Books, Business, Government

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