Free Mickey Mouse; Copyrights Have Become Copy Wrongs

Article excerpt

Byline: Suzanne Fields, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Some Americans cry for civil disobedience in the name of justice. Others decry the overweening power of government in the name of liberty. Still other lovers of freedom have reduced the expression of the most basic yearning of the human heart to three little words: "Free Mickey Mouse."

The focus for such contentiousness is a Supreme Court decision upholding an act of Congress to add 20 years to the length of literary copyright protection. At specific issue in the case titled Eldred vs. Ashcroft is legislation known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, enacted without much interest or debate in 1998. It was hardly noticed in the popular press, although Disney had done intensive lobbying to get it through Congress.

Eric Eldred, publisher of an e-book Website that the National Endowment for the Humanities calls one of the 20 best literary sites on the Web, had tried to create a "global public library" of literature no longer covered by copyright, including poems by Robert Frost, as well as novels and stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson that would have entered the public domain but for the copyright extension. Other plaintiffs included the director of a church choir and a company that restores old films. Mickey Mouse didn't actually have a voice in the decision, but the law enables Disney to hold Mickey as exclusive property for two more decades rather than release him into the public domain as a "free agent" next year.

The court split, 7-2, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writing for the majority, suggesting that the legislation might be bad public policy but it is not for the court to say: Like it or not, Congress holds the constitutional right to set the lengths of copyright protection. The first copyright legislation limited protection to 14, years but terms have been extended often. That seemed about right; authors continued to live longer. Copyrights ensure fair protection of a creator's work for a reasonable amount of time. But the Sonny Bono law, it seems to me, goes beyond doing the right thing.

Before this latest extension, a copyright ran for the life of the individual author plus 50 years; this has been extended to 70 years, and for corporations the copyright is extended from 75 years to 95 years. This translates to big money for corporations like Disney. For Eric Eldred and his readers, this means books published 50 years ago, which were about to enter the public domain, are off limits for 20 additional years. …