Mickey Mouse Protection Act

ctea

The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 extended copyright terms in the United States by 20 years. Since the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship. The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier. Copyright protection for works published prior to 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.

This law, also known as the Sonny Bono Act, or as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, effectively ‘froze’ the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules. Under this Act, additional works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still protected by copyright in 1998 will not enter the public domain until 2019 or afterward (depending on the date of the product) unless the owner of the copyright releases them into the public domain prior to that or if the copyright gets extended again. Unlike copyright extension legislation in the European Union, the Sonny Bono Act did not revive copyrights that had already expired.

Proponents of the Bono Act argue that it is necessary given that the life expectancy of humans has risen dramatically since Congress passed the original Copyright Act of 1790, that a difference in copyright terms between the United States and Europe would negatively affect the international operations of the entertainment industry, and that some works would be created under a longer copyright that would never be created under the existing copyright.

Opponents of the Bono Act consider the legislation to be corporate welfare and have tried (but failed) to have it declared unconstitutional, claiming that such an act is not ‘necessary and proper’ to accomplishing the Constitution’s stated purpose of ‘promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts.’ They argue that most works bring most of the profits during the first few years and are pushed off the market by the publishers thereafter. Thus there is little economic incentive in extending the terms of copyrights except for the few owners of franchises that are wildly successful, such as Disney. More directly, they see two successive terms of approximately 20 years each (the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Bono Act) as the beginning of a ‘slippery slope’ toward a perpetual copyright term that nullifies the intended effect and violates the spirit of the ‘for limited times’ language of the United States Constitution.

They question the proponents’ life expectancy argument, making the comparison between the growth of copyright terms and the term of patents in relation to the growth of life expectancies. Life expectancies have risen from about 35 years in 1800 to 77.6 years in 2002. Considering the increase in life expectancies during that period of time was a bit more than double but the copyright terms have increased threefold from only 28 years total (under the Copyright Act of 1790) presents an apparent discrepancy. While copyright terms have increased significantly since the 1790 act, terms of patents have not been extended in parallel; patents adequately reward investment in the field with their mere 20-year term.

Opponents also argue that the Act encourages ‘offshore production.’ For example, derivative works could be created outside the United States in areas where copyright would have expired, such works advancing science or the useful arts, and that US law would prohibit these works to US residents. For example, a movie of Mickey Mouse playing with a computer could be legally created in Russia and children worldwide could possibly benefit from watching it, but the movie would be refused admission for importation by US Customs because of copyright, resulting in a deprivation to American children. Similarly, the first ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ book was published in 1926 and would have been public domain in 2001.

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