Who cares if Disney squeaks 20 more years' revenue out of Mickey Mouse? Thanks to the Internet, where the public domain is a click away, a lot of people care lately. This week the Supreme Court opened for business with arguments over the validity of the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which added two decades' more protection for works from Steamboat Willie to Robert Frost.
In the press, pretty much everybody thought the Eldred vs. Ashcroft story important enough to assign a reporter. Coverage of the arguments before the high court was by and large even-handed, though some self-interest could be detected in outlets close to Hollywood, such as Variety. (Yahoo's Variety story wins snappiest headline honors this morning: "It's Sonny or Share for Supreme Court.")
Canada's Globe and Mail nicely captured the increasing public awareness as "the movement to limit or curtail copyrights and patents has moved out from the fringe and into the mainstream." Scribe Brian Kelsey watched as reporters thronged anti-Bono lawyer Lawrence Lessig (whom the San Jose Mercury News called "a superstar among the Internet free-speech set") but couldn't find anyone to speak for the copyright-extension law until Lessig "kindly" pointed out Sonny Bono's widow, who four years ago shepherded the law bearing his name through the House of Representatives.
The Globe and Mail estimated the value of the retroactive copyright extensions (mostly) for American corporations at $6 billion, but the Washington Post claimed "Disney earned an estimated $8 billion in 1998 just from licensing Mickey Mouse products." (Mickey himself was not in imminent danger of falling into the hands of the hoi and the polloi, but his predecessor Steamboat Willie was.) The Financial Times brought a European perspective on the question of public domain fairness and the balance of trade: "If Walt Disney was able to build a multi-billion-dollar company by freely plundering the works of Hans Christian Andersen and the Gebruder Grimm, it is now time for others to make what they can of some of the company's popular creations."
Writing for the Freedom Forum, legal expert Tony Mauro noted that Lessig's argument before the Robed Ones leaned much more heavily on whether Congress exceeds its constitutional authority than on the First Amendment question of whether an effectively unlimited copyright regime beggars the public domain. Mauro opined that Lessig calculated his argument along these lines because "the current Court in other contexts has been willing to rein in Congress."
InternetNews developed the argument that only a few works whose copyrights were about to expire still generate revenue, and that for their sake, Disney, AOL Time Warner, et al., are withholding from the public domain a large body of work whose release could spur the creativity of a new generation. Free Mickey! - Keith Dawson
Its Sonny or Share for Supreme Court (Variety-Yahoo)
Case puts copyright in public spotlight (Globe and Mail)
Justices hear access arguments
Justices Hear Challenge to Copyright Law
Hollywood fears challenge to copyright law (Financial Times)
Showdown between copyright, First Amendment turns into sideshow (Freedom Forum)
Online Challenges to Copyright Extension Law
Justices Hear Arguments in Challenge to Copyrights
Justices Doubt Free Speech Link
Battle over public domain
Several Justices Raise Fears About Copyright Extensions
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