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Mickey Mouse copyright laws may last forever

Published: Friday, Nov. 1 2013 7:25 a.m. MDT

Walt Disney being presented with diploma of commendation from the National Academy of Fine Arts at Buenos Aires by Dr. H.C. Niese (right), Argentine consul, in Los Angeles on Nov. 22, 1933.

Associated Press

On Oct. 27, 1998, President Bill Clinton saved Disney's Mickey Mouse from a horrible fate: He would have become part of the public domain — creative works that are no longer protected by copyright law.

Or, as many now argue, Mickey Mouse was almost set free, only to be locked up again.

Timothy B. Lee wrote a thorough review in the Washington Post of how copyright law has expanded over the years — getting longer and longer terms and bringing the public domain to a stand still.

"Today, copyrights can easily last for more than a century," Lee wrote. "In America's original copyright system, protection only lasted for 28 years. By the mid-20th century, Congress had doubled the maximum term to 56 years. Then, in 1976, Congress overhauled the copyright system … individual authors were granted protection for their life plus an additional 50 years … . For works authored by corporations — Hollywood blockbusters, for example — copyright terms were extended to 75 years."

With the 1976 overhaul, Mickey Mouse was scheduled to become available for anybody to use in 2003, but Clinton signed an extension of copyright

"It was a windfall to the families and corporations that owned these lucrative copyrights," Lee wrote. "But it meant these iconic works would be off-limits to those who wanted to reuse or reinvent them without permission. And hundreds of thousands of lesser-known works aren't available at all because there's no cost-effective way to obtain permission to republish them."

One ironic way of illustrating just how important it could be to have creative works available in the public domain is to look at Disney's films.

One blogger, "Roar of Wolverine," pointed out what he thought was the hypocrisy of Disney lobbying to extend copyright laws to protect its older creative works: "Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and many other princess stories, were based on age-old fairy tales that Disney was not required to pay license or royalties for. Later works would include children's literature like: 'Pinocchio,' 'Alice in Wonderland,' 'The Jungle Book' (released just one year after Kipling's copyright expired), — all in the public domain! Disney didn't pay a cent for story license, yet reaped many millions. The 'Little Mermaid,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Aladdin' and all features made under the reign of Michael Eisner, would be from public domain."

At the online community Everything2, "NightShadow" listed many movies Disney did that were not from other works, such as "Lilo & Stitch," "The Aristocats" and "The Emperor's New Groove."

With the copyright extensions, it may make some people wonder what creative works reached the end of their protected terms in 2013 and are now available for anybody to use.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University Law School explains: "What is entering the public domain in the United States? Nothing. Once again, we will have nothing to celebrate this Jan 1. Not a single published work is entering the public domain this year. Or next year. In fact, in the United States, no publication will enter the public domain until 2019. Even more shockingly, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that Congress can take back works from the public domain. Could Shakespeare, Plato or Mozart be pulled back into copyright? The Supreme Court gave no reason to think that they could not be. And wherever in the world you live, you will likely have to wait a very long time for anything to reach the public domain."

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