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Berne baby, berne

"The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act 1998 (U.S.) was literally a "Mickey Mouse Bill". The 1998 statute was the result of intense lobbying by a group of powerful corporate copyright holders, most visibly the Walt Disney Company, which faced the imminent expiration of copyrights on Mickey Mouse and its other famous cartoon characters."

- from 'The Dead Poets Society: The copyright term and the public domain' by Matthew Rimmer.

1 August 2003

When America started, intellectual property was established from the get-go. The idea was to 'promote the Progress of Science' - to give innovators an incentive to invent. As a reward for coming up with Kewl Stuff, the idea goes, you get money for a while. For fourteen years, to be precise. Long enough that if your idea is decent enough, you get to live the life of Riley.

Now, there are some good arguments against this kind of protectionism. Margarine, incandescent lamps, cereal, stock cubes and milk chocolate were all invented in economies without patents. Novartis, Nestle and Unilever are all built on innovations which were not protected by the state in this way.

And yet, creative types want to get *some* reward for their work. At least at the time of making it. Jerome K. Jerome didn't get any money from the huge American sales of 'Three men in a boat', for example, but was fairly sanguine because of all the dough and kudos and pussy that his English reputation secured.

But as the law in America changed the fourteen years protocol, it wasn't creative types behind this. It was companies who stood to lose the most when works went out of copyright, because they could benefit even after the death of the artist, leading to the recent situation where artistic works remained in copyright until fifty years after the death of the artist.

Well, we say 'recent'. The copyright term seems to depend upon how close we're getting to Walt Disney's works entering the public domain. We know that they will, eventually. Not least because many Disney products themselves are based on artistic enterprises which have entered the public domain, like the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But for the moment, there's an impetus to periodically change the laws so that the retarded repulsive Duck called Donald will remain profitable.

Disney's antsiness is why Sonny Bono, by 1998 a member of the House of Representatives, proposed to extend the extra period to seventy years after the death of the artist. Sadly, the former fake hippie died in a skiing accident a few weeks later, and everyone voted for his crappy amendment in respect of his snowy corpse. 'Sadly', because material that should have entered the public domain by now is still behind closed doors.

Also, the situation is not always as clear as it is with Disney. Sometimes, if the artist has multiple or no heirs, it can be difficult to establish who owns it - but the copyright law tells us that it certainly can't be touched.

And, in the estimate of Supreme Court judge Justice Breyer, only 2% of this material has any commercial value. The rest - well, people would like to see it. The artists are dead. The material could be digitised, or otherwise preserved so that it doesn't rot (in the case of celluloid), or get lost, or whatever. Like happened with everything else before these laws. Digital storage and the internet mean that people could be enjoying and adapting this art right now.

Which is why two bizarrely-enlightened Representatives, Zoe Lofgren and Rick Boucher have proposed a patch to this legislation. The idea is that if you want to keep material out of the public domain for such a long time, you pay one dollar every ten years. This is to prevent works being restricted by default - as Reps Lofgren and Boucher put it, 'if the copyright is not worth even $1 to the owner, then we believe the work should pass into the public domain.'

The public domain. Where live Shakespeare and Newton and milk chocolate and how blood circulates. It's good to have stuff there.

More from Matthew Rimmer:


American readers should sign the Reclaim The Public Domain petition:


Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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