Copyright Extension Act and Disney

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( — January 30, 2018) —

Why is this such an important issue, and what does it have to do with Disney?

It comes down to a power struggle between the holders of popular content and those seeking public domain.

“Steamboat Willie”, the first animated film to feature Mickey Mouse is set to enter public domain in 2024. Disney will probably push for a copyright extension. The last time they did this was 20 years ago in The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” or the Sony Bono Act -yes, that Sony Bono, singer turned politician.

Mickey Mouse is under copyright protection until 2023, or is he? The early Disney organization messed up the registration and there were some technical issues with the initial copyright notice.

We still don’t recommend selling Mickey’s first cartoon or his likeness. The last time someone tried to dispute the copyright was in the 1990s. A Georgetown University law student uploaded a paper to the internet stating the copyright claims were null. She was threatened to be sued by Disney.

On the other hand, in 2003 in the case of Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. the Supreme Court ruled that it is not possible to use trademark law to extend expired copyright.

It all seems rather messy, and Disney will probably seek to get the Dastar ruling overturned.

Popular works and characters that fall into public domain include Sherlock Holmes, Buck Rogers, the original R. E. Howard Conan stories and the H. P. Lovecraft horror mythos, however, even these have been disputed by lawyers and copyright claims.

Aside from Mickey Mouse and Disney there are troves of valuable works that have no owners and yet are still under copyright, making them ideal for claims of those who would seek profits from works of long dead authors.

The first time copyright was extended was in 1976, bringing copyright protection up from the previous 56 to 75 years. Then in 1998 President Bill Clinton extended the protection for another 20 years, bringing it to a total of 95.

This means that on January 2019 all works published in 1923 will fall out of copyright protection and fall into public domain. Congress has until then to extend the term.

What is absolutely mind boggling is that this might not happen.

The political landscape is significantly different to what it was in 1998, and the Internet has made a significant impact as well. Google has large stakes in the expansion of copyright protection, and organizations such as Public Knowledge didn’t even exist in ’98.

The internet banded together to fight SOPA in 2012, with a lawyer from Public Knowledge calling it “a big show of force.”

With 2018 being an election year it seems no one is pushing for copyright extension.

A Recording Industry Association of America spokesman stated “We are not aware of any such efforts, and it’s not something we are pursuing,” and a Motion Picture Association of America member said “While copyright term has been a longstanding topic of conversation in policy circles, we are not aware of any legislative proposals to address the issue.”

It looks like copyrighted works will slowly start coming into public domain in the following years.

Does this mean we will see a new Mickey Mouse ride pop up at every non franchise amusement park? Only time will tell.