In one of his comments, frequent Beat commenter Jason A. Quest linked to his websitePD56 | works that should have become Public Domain after 56 years, and people who are interested in copyright should check it out. It lists works created more than 56 years ago that should, in theory be in the public domain now but aren’t Copyright law was originally 56 years: 28 years plus an optional 28 year extension. Of course, thanks to the Sonny Bono law and Walt Disney, copyright has now been extended to periods of up to 120 years. (Trademark, it should be noted, is perpetual as long as its defended.) Quest isn’t a copylefter, he takes a middle ground:
Copyright should be honored, for all the reasons the Constitution says: to promote the creation of new works by rewarding those who make them. But it should also expire. Extending an existing copyright serves no purpose but to enrich the holder, at the expense of our public culture. So here’s what needs to happen: let copyrights expire when they were originally going to expire. Roll back the retroactive extensions and give us back a 56-year copyright. Then maybe the public will be more sympathetic to creators’ legitimate complaints about piracy of thenew things they’re producing.
Quest’s examples are quirky, paintings, plays and of course, cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse, who, it is often noted, prompted much of the extension legislation as Disney faced anxiety over the ticking clock since Mickey’s 1928 debut. Although Mickey the character is a cipher, he’s a powerful symbol:
If Mickey had entered the Public Domain at the end of 1984 like he was supposed to, it would have allowed other people to use the character in their own cartoons, comics, etc. But they wouldn’t be able to use the name “Mickey Mouse” (a trademark of the Walt Disney Company) anywhere on the packaging or promotional materials for it, and they wouldn’t be able to use the distinctive likeness of the character (also a registered trademark) for that either. They’d effectively have to keep his presence in the story a secret, or risk the legal might of one of the most powerful media conglomerates ever.
The creators of the original 56 year copyright term probably didn’t foresee the immense amounts of money to be made from licensing and branding, they also didn’t foresee the ubiquity of internet piracy or collage culture. As long as big media has their way, it very likely that very little of value is going to go out of copyright in any practical way for a looong time.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.