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Why Mickey Mouse's 1998 copyright extension probably won't happen again

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Jan 18, 2018, 4:03:15 AM1/18/18
Why Mickey Mouse’s 1998 copyright extension probably won’t happen

Copyrights from the 1920s will start expiring next year if Congress
doesn’t act.

The copyright for the first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, is
scheduled to expire in 2024, though Disney would still hold a
trademark for the Mickey Mouse brand. One guaranteed result: lots of
work for lawyers.

On January 1, 2019, every book, film, and song published in 1923 will
fall out of copyright protection—something that hasn't happened in 40
years. At least, that's what will happen if Congress doesn't
retroactively change copyright law to prevent it—as Congress has done
two previous times.

Until the 1970s, copyright terms only lasted for 56 years. But
Congress retroactively extended the term of older works to 75 years in
1976. Then on October 27, 1998—just weeks before works from 1923 were
scheduled to fall into the public domain—President Bill Clinton signed
legislation retroactively extending the term of older works to 95
years, locking up works published in 1923 or later for another 20

Will Congress do the same thing again this year? To find out, we
talked to groups on both sides of the nation's copyright debate—to
digital rights advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and
Public Knowledge and to industry groups like the Motion Picture
Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of
America. To our surprise, there seemed to be universal agreement that
another copyright extension was unlikely to be on the agenda this

"We are not aware of any such efforts, and it's not something we are
pursuing," an RIAA spokesman told us when we asked about legislation
to retroactively extend copyright terms.

"While copyright term has been a longstanding topic of conversation in
policy circles, we are not aware of any legislative proposals to
address the issue," the MPAA told us.

Presumably, many of the MPAA's members would gladly take a longer
copyright term if they could get it. For example, Disney's copyright
for the first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, is scheduled to
expire in 2024. But the political environment has shifted so much
since 1998 that major copyright holders may not even try to extend
copyright terms before they start to expire again.

The politics of copyright have changed dramatically

In 2013, on the 15th anniversary of the 1998 Copyright Term Extension
Act, I wrote an in-depth look at the legislative fight over that bill.
I talked to Dennis Karjala, a law professor who was part of the lonely
opposition to longer copyright terms in the 1990s. He died last year.

"There was not a single argument that actually can stand up to any
kind of reasonable analysis," Karjala told me. But that didn't matter
very much because the lobbying muscle was entirely on one side. Major
movie studios joined forces with the estates of famous authors and
musicians to push for a copyright extension.

Most of the public considered copyright to be a boring subject with
little relevance to their daily lives, so there was little grassroots
interest in the issue. Karjala hoped that professional associations of
librarians and historians—which had traditionally been important
advocates for the public interest on copyright issues—would help stop
the bill. But the legislation had so much momentum that these groups
decided to settle for minor changes to the legislation. So the bill
wound up passing without a significant fight.

The rise of the Internet has totally changed the political landscape
on copyright issues. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is much larger
than it was in 1998. Other groups, including Public Knowledge, didn't
even exist 20 years ago. Internet companies—especially Google—have
become powerful opponents of expanding copyright protections.

Most importantly, there's now a broad grassroots engagement on
copyright issues—something that became evident with the massive online
protests against the infamous Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012. SOPA
would have forced ISPs to enforce DNS-based blacklists of sites
accused of promoting piracy. It was such a bad idea that Wikipedia,
Google, and other major sites blacked themselves out in protest. The
digital rights activist group Demand Progress emerged from the SOPA
fight and has gone on to play a key role organizing protests over
network neutrality and other issues.

The protest against SOPA "was a big show of force," says Meredith
Rose, a lawyer at Public Knowledge. The protest showed that "the
public really cares about this stuff."

The defeat of SOPA was so complete that it has essentially ended
efforts by copyright interests to expand copyright protection via
legislation. Prior to SOPA, Congress would regularly pass bills
ratcheting up copyright protections (like the 2008 PRO-IP Act, which
beefed up anti-piracy efforts). Since 2012, copyright has been a
legislative stalemate, with neither side passing significant

“The public would fight back”

And that means that advocates of a new copyright term extension bill
wouldn't be able to steamroll opponents the way they did 20 years ago.
Any term extension proposal would face a well-organized and
well-funded opposition with significant grassroots support.

"After the SOPA fight, Hollywood likely knows that the public would
fight back," wrote Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, in an email to Ars. "I suspect that Big Content
knows it would lose the battle and is smart enough not to fight."

"I haven't seen any evidence that Big Content companies plan to push
for another term extension," Nazer added. "This is an election year,
so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you
would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and

Of course, copyright interests might try to slip a copyright term
extension into a must-pass bill in hopes opponents wouldn't notice
until it was too late. But Rose doesn't think that would work.

Not only are there many more copyright reform advocates in Washington
now than there were 20 years ago, but they're also well-networked with
other public interest groups, she told Ars in a phone interview. As a
result, there are "a lot of different eyes on different bills."

"The likelihood of it slipping by unnoticed" is low, Rose said.

And even some content creators aren't keen on ever-longer copyright
terms. The Authors Guild, for example, "does not support extending the
copyright term, especially since many of our members benefit from
having access to a thriving and substantial public domain of older
works," a Guild spokeswoman told Ars in an email. "If anything, we
would likely support a rollback to a term of life-plus-50 if it were
politically feasible."

In my 2013 article, I wrote that "the question for the coming
legislative battle on copyright is who will prevail." But now it looks
like there probably won't be a legislative battle at all because
hardly anyone is pushing for another extension. And that means we
might actually see works start to fall into the public domain next
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