In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act more popularly known as the ‘Sonny Bono Act’ or ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ (due to its fierce lobbying by Walt Disney and Sonny Bono’s wife, Mary Bono) extended copyright terms in the United States by 20 years. This enactment helped large corporations with exceedingly valued copyrights succeed in delaying protected works from entering into the public domain until 2019.
However, today, yet again, we face the same question - should copyright be extended for another 20 years or more?
Well, I think if Hollywood had its way, then definitely yes! I can say with some certainty that Disney will again strongly contest for an extended term. It will use its might and clout in Washington to ensure that Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie does not fall prey to the public sphere. Which then brings us to a rather underlying question – should copyright last for an infinite duration?
Supreme Court’s 2012 decision to remove ‘Peter and the Wolf’ from the public domain only goes to indicate that in the United States, it’s possible to have a copyright for infinite duration. The Napster uproar is another indication that authorities are pro-copyright. But, having said that, there seems to be a tilt in this debate. Lately, many ‘biggies’ in the tech community, including Google, have come out in support of enlarging the public domain. Thereby diluting the erstwhile oppositions “corporate welfare” argument. Increasing popularity of Google Books is another signal to the shifting inclination towards public domain works. In a situation that the Congress does debate his issue again, it appears Google and similar companies will form a bee line at Washington to lobby against such extension.
Someone on a blog suggested that a fee structure be implemented such that each extension going forward should be charged at an escalating rate. Obviously if a big business house is seeking an infinite protection then it can surely afford a tall fee. This seems to me like a win-win situation. Then again, under the Berne Convention copyright is for a finite duration and United States being a member should perhaps ensure that its copyright laws do not violate the terms of the Berne Convention.
So it seems that this time around the scales are heavy on both ends. It is difficult to predict an outcome based on the 1998 experience.
In my opinion, extension of copyright is not the solution. Today, we live in a digital world where copyright protection is ever more difficult. Clearly what we need today is not an extension of the already existing rights, rather we need an overhaul of the current copyright laws with an aim to strengthen the enforcement mechanism. An extension of copyright will only benefit corporations like Disney, production houses and record labels to deepen their pockets.