Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Copywronged: Sonny Bono, the Mouse, and the Public Domain

By: Geoffrey Ledbetter
     Last year, I discovered the wonder that is the public domain. Always having been an avid reader, but with just little enough motivation to make the arduous journey to the library, discovering that books like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula were in the public domain and could be downloaded free of charge to my iPad was a significant blessing to me. After a short time, I was tearing through bigger and more significant works of literary merit, including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Unfortunately, I soon came to a perplexing realization. Several prominent books that I considered old enough to be in the public domain were nowhere to be found. Where was Brave New World? What had been done to the Great Gatsby? And what of the famous epics of J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, both of which had been published more than 50 years ago? My interest piqued by these conspicuous absences from the public domain, I began to research the issue.
   As the story goes, in the magical pre-1976 Copyright Act world, works of literature entered the public domain just 28 years after they were published. While this copyright could be renewed for another 28 years, many were not and the public domain was enriched every year by a variety of great works. However, in 1976, new laws extended copyrights to 50 years after the death of the works original author. This piece of legislation was followed some 20 years later by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. (You read that right. Sunny Bono, the first half of the famous Sonny & Cher duo that sang "I Got You Babe" was the mastermind of widespread copyright changes.). This bill, derisively nicknamed the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act" and heavily influenced by pressure from Disney lobbyists, increased the length of copyrights from 50 to 70 years and retroactively applied this extension to any works that would be were set to enter the public domain, freezing hundreds of works that would have been freed into the public domain under the previous laws.
 Mickey Mouse and Copyright
     So why should we, as a society, care about his unfortunate development in copyright law? Unfortunately, these law have several rather troubling effects on society and civic life. First, people without access to libraries are deprived the possibility of any access to works that would ordinarily be quite easily accessible through shared online copies, limiting their ability to acquaint themselves with a handful of rather important works in the western canon. (While it should be noted that the number of people with access to the internet but no access to a library is somewhat small, this demographic is growing with the rise in cheaper personal computers.) Second, a robust public domain contributes to the creation of new and exciting pieces of literature and art by providing a foundation of work with which artists and authors can work. Invention is often the art of remix, and without access to a handful of more modern works, creativity has been stifled. Indeed, Disney itself has the public domain to thank for many of its more significant works, including, but not limited to The Little Mermaid, Hercules, Alice and Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled... You get the idea. Third, finally, and perhaps most importantly, these pieces of legislation have prevented those of us in the United States from having anything to celebrate on Public Domain Day every January 1st. Alas, no works will be escaping their copyrights in the United States until 2019, making for a rather lame Public Domain Day party.
Guess you'll just have to find something else to celebrate on January 1st...

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