Friday, May 24, 2002

copyright extension and the mouse

Copyrighted materials are an exception to free speech. Copyright's protection allows the creators of artistic and literary works to profit from their endeavors, and encourages that type of activity. The authors have a limited monopoly on the expressions that they create. But, at some point the ideas expressed in copyrighted material should be allowed to enter into the public domain. A fairly recent copyright extension act is at the heart of the debate in a case captioned Eldred v. Ashcroft. The plaintiffs have a web site (designed by Matt Haughey, from metafilter), which:
collects material related to the constitutional challenge of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended by 20 years both existing copyrights and future copyrights.
One of the items on the Eldred v. Ashcroft site is the following button, which they are encouraging people to copy and display to show support for their efforts:

free the mouse

Why a mouse? Eric Eldred wanted to publish old books on the internet. With the passage of this law, his plans were dashed. He decided to fight back, which is why this lawsuit has happened. But, why a mouse on the button? A number of copyrighted materials that still have some popularity in today's culture would be available to enter the public domain, and be reproduced freely if not for the copyright extension, including Mickey Mouse:
The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was set to enter the public domain in 2003, and characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy would have followed shortly after.
There's a lot of speculation in the press that Disney had a part in the passage of the copyright term extension act (see also the findlaw article entitled The Mouse that Ate the Public Domain). The irony here is that much of Disney's success has been based upon being able to make movies using characters and stories that have fallen out of copyright protection and into the public domain such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Quasimodo.

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