The big story on the Internet today is the controversial Supreme Court case, Eldred vs Ashcroft where the constitutionality of the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, or the “Sonny Bono Act,” was called into question. The US Constitution grants Congress the right to allow authors and inventors a “limited” monopoly on their creations. After this limited amount of time, the novel, poem, song, invention, painting, etc. must enter the public domain, where it becomes legal for anyone to use it in derivitive works. For example, anyone can perform Hamlet without paying royalties to the descendents of W.S. because Hamlet is not owned by anyone. If copyright didn’t exist creators would get exploited by copiers as soon as their work was released and this may discourage them from creating new works in the future. Copyright grants creators the ability to profit from their work with the reasoning that these creations greatly benefit society and the profits from creation #1 will encourage creation 2, 3, 4, etc.
In other words, the value of having intellectual property is only as valuable as the future creations of creative people. All the songs I’ve written are not mine because I wrote them. Thy’re mine (for now) because the benefit I get from owning them (haha) encourages me to write new songs.
Congress seems to think that perpetually extending the copyrights of companies like Disney encourages more original material while Disney typically revamps works from the public domain (Little Mermaid, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin). Mickey Mouse was originally created in the 20’s and if copyright had the same term length it did when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, he would have been in the public domain for over 60 years already.
The sad part is not that Disney can continue to bring in billions of dollars on its popular characters. It’s that many companies cling to works they have no intention of making available. Technology makes the free dispersal of literature, music, and art trivial and instead of being available to everyone, these works lie dormant because the companies who own them can only lose money by releasing them.
Next time you sing Happy Birthday to someone, make sure you send AOL-Time Warner a royalty check.