Last year our own Dr. Copyright wrote:
“Today’s copyright system is broken in some important ways. Because it has poorly defined fair use standards and exclusive rights last so long (thanks to Sonny Bono and the Mickey Mouse Copyright Term Extension Act – 95+ years), a great deal of what we used to think of as our common cultural stock is now locked away in corporate vaults. This impoverishes the Public Domain and makes it hard to remix. Think what would have happened to composers who have written variations on themes of other composers if they got sued every time they wrote one!”
Those “corporate vaults” may, at last, be opening (just a bit) but, first, some background. In October 1998, President Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which retroactively extended copyright protection an extra 20 years. The Bill, before it was enacted, had a modest level of opposition, opposers arguing that extending copyright protection another 20 years did nothing to benefit the public. Instead, they argued, rather than incentivize authors and artists, the Bill served only to extend protection for works created by authors who were long dead, guaranteeing a continuous income stream for corporate copyright owners – Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Gershwin’s works would continue to pump royalties for their owners. The best support that proponents of the Bill could muster was that longer copyright terms harmonized U.S. copyright law with that of Europe’s, making the system fairer.
After the Bill became law, there was another outburst of activity, culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court Challenge to the “Mickey Mouse Extension Act”, but it was too little, too late. The challengers argued that the Act was unconstitutional because it violated the requirement that copyrights be granted for a limited time. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, opined that so long as the terms remained finite, the “limited time” requirement was satisfied.
In October 2013, The Washington Post “celebrated” the 15th anniversary of the Act, pondering whether there would be yet another extension when the works protected by the Act were to be set free in five years. In 2013, according to the report, Hollywood was silent on the issue. Academics believed that if Hollywood wanted Congress to enact another extension they would have to get to work then. The Washington Post also noted that since 1998, the public debate over online piracy and increased economic research suggested that the anti-extension movement would be much stronger.
Now, in 2018, the day of reckoning is upon us. What’s going to happen to Mickey Mouse? Will there be another extension? Ars Technica attempts to answer the question: probably not. Ars spoke to groups on both sides of the debate and there seemed to be agreement that another copyright extension would not be on the agenda this year. Two reasons appear to account for this. First, the politics have changed. The growth of the Internet has made a boring subject relevant; the Electronic Frontier Foundation is much larger; there are many new groups advocating for copyright laws; powerful corporations, such as Google, oppose copyright extensions; and there is an upwelling of public grass roots engagement on copyright issues. The consensus is that new legislative attempts to extend copyrights would face considerable public opposition.
Mickey Mouse may be freed at last.
— Adam G. Garson, Esq.