Alice in Lawyerland: would the laws Disney lobbied for have prevented Disney from existing in the first place?
(disclaimer: I have cashed a number of royalties checks over the years so the following is obviously not an attack on the concept of intellectual property. I like royalty checks. I'm just worried about the consequences of taking these things to an extreme.)
In 1998, the Walt Disney company had a problem: their company mascot was turning 70. Mickey Mouse had debuted in 1928's "Mickey Mouse In Plane Crazy" which meant that unless something was done, Mickey would enter the public domain within a decade. This was a job for lobbyists, lots of lobbyists.
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 January 1, 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.
This law, also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Sonny Bono Act, or pejoratively 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 copyrighted 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. The Act did extend the terms of protection set for works that were already copyrighted, and is retroactive in that sense.
Mickey had been Disney's biggest hit but he wasn't their first. The studio had established itself with a series of comedies in the early Twenties about a live-action little girl named Alice who found herself in an animated wonderland. In case anyone missed the connection, the debut was actually called "Alice's Wonderland." The Alice Comedies were the series that allowed Disney to leave Kansas and set up his Hollywood studio.
For context, Lewis Carroll published the Alice books, Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in 1865 and 1871 and died in 1898. Even under the law that preceded the Mouse Protection Act, Alice would have been the property of Carroll's estate and "Alice's Wonderland" was a far more clear-cut example of infringement than were many of the cases Disney has pursued over the years.
In other words, if present laws and attitudes about intellectual property had been around in the Twenties, the company that lobbied hardest for them might never have existed.
There's nothing unusual about a small company or start-up exploiting lapsed or unenforced copyrights to get a foothold. The public domain has long been fertile ground for stage companies, record companies, publishers, and producers of movies or radio and television; it's just been getting a lot less fertile lately.
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