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Mickey Mouse copyright laws may last forever

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

Authors Scott Turow, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro argue in the New York Times that this is a good thing: "(A) handful of law professors and other experts … have made careers of fashioning counterintuitive arguments holding that copyright impedes creativity and progress. Their theory is that if we severely weaken copyright protections, innovation will truly flourish. It's a seductive thought, but it ignores centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work."

Blogger Gregg Tavares also doesn't see why long copyright rules are bad.

"Why is it that copyrights should expire ever? I don't see the logic? Why should anybody in the world be able to make Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck ripoffs? How does the public gain in this case? I don't see it," Tavares said. "Why is it that after Disney has spent untold millions a year on keeping Mickey Mouse fresh and popular that they should have to give it all up just because it's some number of years after they first introduced him?"

Tavares says Disney would have just paid licensing fees to use those stories that were in the public domain such as Cinderella, if they were still under copyright protection.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain, however, explains that the problem is not just well-know copyrighted works such as Mickey Mouse, but the many lesser-known works: "Libraries, museums, historians, archivists, teachers, filmmakers, publishers, and database creators rely on the public domain to collect, preserve, and teach us about our past. Anyone can freely restore and digitize works published before 1923, but far too many projects have had to abandon works published after 1923 because of the extraordinarily long copyright term. Libraries avoid digitizing important resources, archives and databases are incomplete, important historical images are redacted from documentaries, museums cannot publish or digitize millions of pages of archival documents, photographs, oral histories, and reels of film (as the U..S Copyright Office has explained), all because the copyright ownership of these orphan works cannot be determined."

If the 1978 law was still in effect, works published in 1955 would be available and, because the authors did not renew their copyright protection under the laws back then, 85 percent of the works published in 1983 would be in the public domain.

"But now everything published from 1923 onward is presumptively copyrighted and off limits," the center reports, "even though the vast majority of these works are no longer commercially valuable and no one is benefitting from continued copyright protection."

James Boyle in the Financial Times points out that under the current laws, many of societies greatest works of art would not have been possible.

"The problem is not simply that Shakespeare flourished without copyright protection for his work," Boyle said. "It is that he made liberal use of the work of others in his own plays in ways that would today almost certainly generate a lawsuit."

Tavares, who wrote in his blog post he couldn't see any reason why copyrights can't be forever, backed off a little in the comments section of his post.

"I think possibly a distinction could/should be made between stuff that is actively being used and stuff that is not," Tavares said. "For example I'm sure there is some book about programming the Apple 2 which nobody is selling, no one has sold for 10 years, maybe that should fall into the public domain. But, Mickey Mouse is at the other extreme. Millions are still spent on Mickey Mouse. Just this year Disney and Square released Kingdom Hearts for PS2 with Mickey in it. As well as the Racing and Snowboarding games for Gamecube. It seems unfair to me that for some random reason anybody should be able to use Mickey."

According to Charles Kenny at The Animation Anomaly, "Mickey Mouse's films will enter the public domain when their copyright terms expire. As of right now, that is 2020 for Steamboat Willie (barring further term extensions)."

Unless copyright is extended again.

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @degroote; Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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