US Congress may approve new copyright extension, continue to keep works out of public domain

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In 1998, US President Bill Clinton signed into law, a controversial bill that plans to keep icon works out of the public domain. By adding a twenty year extension to these pieces many of the great works from the 20th century can’t be recreated, reproduced, or re-invented without prior written permission of the one who holds the copyright. Unlike works from Dickens, Shakespeare, and Beethoven, iconic characters such as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse are not public domain figures. That means, in theory, you can’t even post a picture of the famed mouse online without getting permission to do so from Disney.

In five years this law will come to an end, paving the way for these figures to be used in the public domain just like their predecessors. However, the holders of the copyrights and other proponents of the law are ready to petition Congress to once again offer a twenty year extension of the copyright. What does that mean for the consumers? You won’t likely see a remake of Steamboat Willie anytime soon unless Disney is in charge of the remake.

By definition the copyrights for all of the affected works should have expired between the late 1970’s and late 1990’s had it not been for the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Law. Copyright terms have been amended in the past, changing from the original 28 years, doubling to a term of 56 years, and finally going to the current standard of the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years.

Opponents of the extension claim that the current copyright laws are enough to ensure that the work isn’t stolen and provide the families of the copyright holders’ protection. These opponents see the extension as a way to create a monopoly on these figures and continue to receive revenue from the works.

What makes the copyright extension so difficult for consumers? Should it really matter if Disney keeps Mickey out of the realm of public domain, after all he is their character? The problem really is an issue for works of music and books. Some of these retroactive copyrights are considered orphaned works. This means that the copyright holders are unknown and the creator of the work is long since passed. These works can’t be reproduced for today’s masses because no one knows who to negotiate reproduction rights with, cause many works to be lost.

Will Mickey, Bugs, and the gang be part of the public domain soon? There is no way to tell. Big companies like Warner Brothers and Disney may well lobby to keep their works under copyright just a little longer.

[via Washington Post]

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1 comment

  1. Darcy

    Current copyright law is life of the creator plus 70 years only in the case of an individual. It’s a flat 100 years in the case of a corporation. At one time a copyright was limited to 7 years, but I think that was from the last appearance of any character by the original creator.

    Extending these copyrights has both pros and cons. A short story I once read, pointed out that music is composed of 8 notes. Only a certain amount of combinations of those notes are pleasant. Too long a copyright would limit the ability of composers to produce new works. At the same time, the story pointed out that Romeo and Juliet & West Side Story have basically the same plot line but are different stories of the same plot. If you don’t believe a copyright case could be made based on that, look at the case brought against “The Truman Show” movie producers by the writer of “Ed TV.”

    I can see the purpose of copyrights with continuing characters, like Bugs Bunny mentioned in the article. It’s a continuing source of revenue for the creator/company. There needs to be some limit though. Perhaps we should revisit the idea of a copyright expiring when the character/story/etc has been unused for a period of time.

    Then again, if it would prevent stories like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” I might have to change that opinion.