(By Timothy B. Lee, Washington Post, 25 October 2013)
If not for the CTEA, Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, would have fallen into the public domain at the end of 2003. That would have allowed anyone to use the character in their own works. (Disney)
Few members of Congress were opposed to the legislation, but Karjala was working to rally opposition to the legislation from outside of Congress. The Copyright Office asked for comments on extending copyright terms in 1993. Karjala says he drafted a letter opposing the idea and got "30 or 40" of his fellow legal scholars to sign it. When Congress took up the idea in 1995, people encouraged Karjala to once again take a leading role. "I kind of groaned to myself," Karjala says. "I'm not an activist type of personality, but I thought, 'I guess I've started on this thing. I'm the only one who seems to be sufficiently energized about it.'"
If President Clinton hadn't signed the CTEA, Superman would be scheduled to fall into the public domain at the end of this year.
Bill Clinton (AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
The big question now is whether incumbent copyright holders will try to get yet another extension of copyright terms before works begin falling into the public domain again on January 1, 2019. For now, Hollywood is staying mum; a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America declined to comment on its plans. We weren't able to find any sign the topic has come up on Capitol Hill. But most of the experts we spoke to said the stakes are so high that a renewed lobbying push is almost inevitable. "If Hollywood and their allies want to do this, they're going to have to start doing it now," says Chris Sprigman, a legal scholar at New York University. "I would imagine there are discussions going on." Sprigman predicts a debate over term extension over the next five years will look very different than it did in the 1990s. "People are paying attention," he says. "There's a coalition now" that's likely to oppose longer terms. Indeed, Sprigman sees public outrage over the 1998 extension as a catalyst for the copyright reform movement that came of age with the protest that stopped the Stop Online Piracy Act last year. "None of that would have been possible without the loss in the CTEA and Eldred," he argues.
One advantage opponents will have this time around is better arguments and evidence. Public debate over the last extension has stimulated increased academic research into the economics of the public domain, and as a result, we know a lot more about the costs of longer copyright terms than we did 20 years ago. One striking example: a study looked at the availability of books published in the last 200 years on Amazon.com. Surprisingly, the study found that there are more printed books available from the 1880s than the 1980s. When books fall into the public domain, as works from the 1880s have, anyone is free to re-publish them. In contrast, books from the 1980s are still in copyright, so only their original copyright holder can give permission to distribute them. As a result, older books are actually easier to get online than newer books are. That means that the 1976 and 1998 extensions have deprived a generation of readers of easy access to books from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
(Paul J. Heald)Not only have many copyright holders failed to keep their older works in print, but there are now many books whose copyright holders can't be identified at all. In many cases, the original copyright holder is dead and records about who now holds the copyright aren't available. These "orphan works" have become a serious problem for projects such as Google Books, which aims to digitize books and make them available to the public. Google can't obtain the rights to reproduce these books at any price because it can't figure out who it needs to negotiate with. The older a work is, the more likely it is to be orphaned, so copyright extensions have made the problem much worse. "There's no evidence suggesting that a longer term is going to produce any more art, literature," Sprigman says. "The only reason to extend the term is to give private benefits to companies like Disney or Time Warner that have valuable properties like Mickey Mouse or famous films." But copyright, he says, is "not supposed to be about corporate welfare for Disney." Over the next five years, we'll find out if Congress agrees.