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The Mouse that Ate the Public Domain

Logan watches a number of programs that air on the Disney Channel, so I see Mickey Mouse many times a day, sometimes in Cartoons on "House of Mouse" but more often in the brief network ID spots that run between commercials. I mentioned to Lara that Congress granted an extension of the copyright on Mickey Mouse in order to keep him from "falling" from corporate ownership into the public domain. She seemed to remember me telling her something about copyright law that contradicted the idea the Mickey or any other character could become public property while living heirs of the creator remained to claim stewardship of the property.

So I fired up my web-browser and found the following explanation here:


Back in 1998, representatives of the Walt Disney Company came to Washington looking for help. Disney's copyright on Mickey Mouse, who made his screen debut in the 1928 cartoon short "Steamboat Willie," was due to expire in 2003, and Disney's rights to Pluto, Goofy and Donald Duck were to expire a few years later.

Rather than allow Mickey and friends to enter the public domain, Disney and its friends - a group of Hollywood studios, music labels, and PACs representing content owners - told Congress that they wanted an extension bill passed.

Prompted perhaps by the Disney group's lavish donations of campaign cash - more than $6.3 million in 1997-98, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics - Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

The CTEA extended the term of protection by 20 years for works copyrighted after January 1, 1923. Works copyrighted by individuals since 1978 got "life plus 70" rather than the existing "life plus 50". Works made by or for corporations (referred to as "works made for hire") got 95 years. Works copyrighted before 1978 were shielded for 95 years, regardless of how they were produced.

In all, tens of thousands of works that had been poised to enter the public domain were maintained under private ownership until at least 2019.

After the material I just quoted, the author, Chris Sprigman, wanders over several areas of legal esoterica that relate to intellectual property. Toward the end of his essay he returns to matters of more general interest (or more importantly, of interest to me), particularly the need for a rich public domain. He writes:
Most artists, if pressed, will admit that the true mother of invention in the arts is not necessity, but theft. And this is true even for our greatest artists. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1591) was taken from Arthur Brooke's poem Romeus and Juliet (1562), and most of Shakespeare's historical plays would have infringed Holingshead's Chronicles of England (1573). For the third movement of the overture to Theodora, Handel drew on a harpsichord piece by Gottlieb Muffat (1690-1770). Passages of both works are compared at this very interesting web site [link broken].

Cultural giants borrow, and so do corporate giants. Ironically, many of Disney's animated films are based on Nineteenth Century public domain works, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alice in Wonderland, and The Jungle Book (released exactly one year after Kipling's copyrights expired).

Borrowing is ubiquitous, inevitable, and, most importantly, good. Contrary to the romantic notion that true genius inheres in creating something completely new, genius is often better described as opening up new meanings on well-trodden themes. Leonard Bernstein's reworking in West Side Story of Romeo and Juliet is a good example.

None of this is intended as an argument that art should be "freed" from copyright. Our copyright regime is almost as old as our Constitution, and the creation of exclusive rights for limited periods is as sensible an approach now as it was at the Founding. What is needed is a more balanced approach to assessing the costs and benefits of the expanding scope and duration of IP rights, including copyright terms. Perhaps if campaign finance reform succeeds in helping good arguments compete against ready cash, copyright will right itself.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Feb. 8th, 2004 08:28 am (UTC)

thankfully most of us have outgrown the need for THEIR bullshit retard culture, and can freely make our own BETTER culture, from "scratch". fuck hollywood and fuck disney and FUCK CONGRESS.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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