The Mickey Mouse Preservation Act

This is a really informative BusinessWeek article about copyright laws especially as they pertain to digital media. It serves as a primer to a case coming up in the Supreme Court, Eldred v. Ashcroft, which challenges the 20 year extension granted to all copyright holders. The extension prevented songs such as "Happy Birthday," early Disney Characters such as Mickey Mouse, and the works of Robert Frost from entering the public domain.

Unlike scientific patents, which last only 20 to 14 years from their first filing, copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the author (creator). This wasn't always the case. The U.S. Copyright Act of 1790 gave copyright holders only 14 years with the option to renew for another 14 years. These numbers were doubled in 1909 from 14 to 28 years. Between then and 1976, there were a series of stop gap laws preventing works from entering the public domain.

Then, in 1976, the term of the copyright was extended to 50 years after the death of the author. 20 years later, Congress passed another act, extending the copyright period for another 20 years. Each extension came just in the nick of time for Mickey Mouse, whose copyright would have expired long ago if not for these acts.

Disney, of course, is happy about that. Many others, touting the "Free Mickey" mantra, are not. They argue that Disney, which has pillaged the works of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm -- among many others in the public domain -- wants to have its cake and eat it too.

It can be argued that allowing artistic works to enter the public domain is good for living artists as they will compete less with artists, such as Robert Frost, which have long since passed away. In fact, very few people argue that the extended periods of copyright tend to favor anyone but the corporate copyright holders, the Disneys of the world. This is especially the case for publishers such as Dover Publications, which specialize in printing and distributing works which have entered the public domain. The Dover series of dollar classics is a god send to college students on a shoestring budget.

And that's where the court case comes into the mix. Eric Elder placed such freely available public domain works on the Internet for high school students. When the copyright period was extended by yet another 20 years, he was prevented from publishing many works. Proponents of the intellectual commons took up the cause. On October 9th, they'll argue these any many other points.

The case rings with profound impact in the wake of controversy over digital copyright laws. Innovative new technology allows companies to enforce copyrights in ways heretofore unrealized. As a result, this has been abused by companies which have restricted access to works, such of those of Aristotle, which have been commonly considered to be in the public domain for thousands of years.

At the moment, few worry that companies like Disney will consume artists such as Aristotle. However, as we move into the future, books, periodicals, movies, etc. -- which take up precious space and degrade with time -- will disappear. Many older works will exist only in digital form. It's a simple matter of economics. New works are published every day. There simply isn't enough space for all the pieces of art that will ever be created. However, the entire Library of Congress can already fit on what is a relatively meager computer by today's standards.

When such a time comes, it becomes profoundly important to know who owns the original copy of such works, the copy from which all others are created. This is because each copy can embed its own copy protection. In the case of the Aristotle work mentioned in the BusinessWeek article, you can only quote from Aristotle 10 times in 10 days, something less than ideal for researchers and students. How does one readily copy a book that only allows you such limited access to the work. Isn't the book in the public domain? Shouldn't it be freely available?

Copyright law is entering uncharted territory. Currently, corporations such as Disney make all the rules, enjoying the benefits of the public domain while never contributing to it. Landmark cases such as Eldred v. Ashcroft seek a balance, a way to reward artists without starving culture. Whether or not the courts agree is another matter, and one that will be resolved shortly.

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