Don't like the bias in this writeup? I contributed to an alternative version of this writeup, written from a neutral point of view, available on Wikipedia: http://www.wikipedia.com/wiki/Sonny_Bono_Copyright_Term_Extension_Act

A tree may have stopped his heart, but it didn't stop the damage. If he weren't already dead, I'd kill him.

In A.D. 1996, war was beginning. The European Union extended copyright terms from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years (source: http://www.gt-ormond-st-hospital.org.uk/peterPan/aboutPeterPan.htm), presumably under great pressure from Disney Enterprises Inc (hereinafter DisneyCo).

And then the melancholy elephants arrived in the States.

Called the "Copyright Theft Act" or "Mickey Mouse Copyright Act" by critics, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Public Law 105-298, extended all copyright terms by twenty years. It was lobbied for by The Walt Disney Company and other entertainment companies and passed on October 27, 1998, by a nearly lame duck House and Senate by voice vote during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, along with the 8-bit XOR Encryption Is Hereby Unbreakable Act. It set a precedent that effectively put everything created on or after 1923 under perpetual copyright in the United States, as Congress can always add 20 years whenever, say, Mickey Mouse is about to enter the public domain (thanks dragoon for the example).

Dam(n)!

The Bono Act can be thought of as a dam at A.D. 1923 holding back the "flow" of works into PD. Thanks to the precedent set by the Bono Act, the following parts of American/English speaking culture are under perpetual copyright:

When Jetifi pointed out that some material fell out of copyright, I did a bit more research:
In order for a work first published in the United States of America to have fallen out of copyright in the United States, the work must have been first published on or before December 31, 1922, or have been first published on or before December 31, 1963, and not renewed. (Copyrights under the 1909 Copyright Act were 28 years plus a 28-year renewal term.) The (FIXME) Act of 1992 renewed the copyright on all works first published on or after January 1, 1964 (source: http://fullpride.tripod.com/Should-know/id4.html). Good luck finding proof of non-renewal for copyrights on works first published from 1923 to 1963.

Constitutional?

At first glance, the Constitution of the United States of America seems to limit the duration of copyright to reasonable terms, giving Congress the power "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" (U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8) (emphasis mine). But the United States District Court for the District of Columbia has the opinion (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/eldredvreno/opinion.html) that Congress has the power to set unrealistic and counterproductive limits, just so long as they are limits. For example, Congress could "limit" copyright duration to the lifetime of the Universe, and it would still be constitutional.

It gets worse offshore.

In order for a work first published outside the United States to have fallen out of copyright in the United States, a foreign government must not have granted a perpetual copyright on the work, AND one of the following must be true:

  • a corporate author must have created the work on or before December 31 of the year 71 years prior to the current year (note: this is shorter than the 96 years that U.S. copyright officially provides), or
  • the last surviving author must have died on or before December 31 of the year 71 years prior to the current year.

Language in the Berne Convention and GATT "that requires countries to respect each other's copyrights" provides for special handling of works first published outside of the United States. For example, the United Kingdom does not have a monolithic written constitution like that of the United States and is free to create a statutory perpetual copyright on specific works such as the Peter Pan cycle by James M. Barrie, with all royalties going to the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. (Disney is about to get a taste of its own medicine with respect to Return to Never Land.)

Source: http://www.cam.anglia.ac.uk/~systimk/Articles/Peter-Pan2.Html

JerboaKolinowski says Heh, 'Peter Pan' is pretty appropriate, given the ever-youthful nature of the protagonist - a bit like the copyright, he never grew up :)

But note also that even if the copyright on a given work has expired, if the work is a derivative work of a perpetually copyrighted work, the owner of the original work retains All Rights Reserved on the derivative work even after the copyright on the derivative work expires. (This is relevant with respect to the movie Hook, in which Peter Pan has grown up.)

JerboaKolinowski says "Hook", as in "we bought it Hook Line and Sinker" Very droll! :)

Yes, the Congress (and the courts) did buy Disney's proposal hook, line, and sinker.

Now don't you think that's dumb?

  • Eldred v. Ashcroft: http://eldred.cc/
  • Find more articles on Google: http://directory.google.com/Top/Society/Issues/Intellectual_Property/Copyrights/
  • Lawrence Lessig says it better than I do: http://archive.nytimes.com/2001/04/30/opinion/30LESS.html
  • Libraries hate it too: http://www.arl.org/info/frn/copy/primer.html
  • Where the money came from: http://www.opensecrets.org/pubs/lobby98/topind16.htm
  • The story continues: Eldred v. Ashcroft, where the Supreme Court upheld the Bono Act 7-2, giving Congress carte blanche to follow Europe's lead in future extensions.



Bono Act-related ideas that may eventually get their own writeup:
(return to) DMCA and the politics of copy protection

© 2001 Damian Yerrick. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections or Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the writeup entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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