The Mickey Mouse Debate

Mickey Mouse has always been synonymous with Disney and has served as their ultimate mascot. Disney Corporation has always been protective of its creations and has ensured that their copyrights and their beloved mascot, Mickey Mouse, never fall into the public domain. Every time the first Mickey Mouse copyright is set to expire, Disney springs into action to extend the copyright term.

The debate of copyright term duration is a long-standing one. Initially, US copyright law provided for a copyright term that lasted for a period of fourteen years from the date of publication. This term could be renewed for an additional fourteen years if the author was still alive at the expiry of the first term. In 1831, the Copyright Act was amended and the term was extended from fourteen years to 28 years, which could be renewed for an additional 14 years.

In 1976 the copyright act went through major changes when the first Mickey Mouse copyright was set to expire. The amendment extended the term of copyright for works copyrighted before 1978 to the life of the author plus fifty years after the author’s demise and 75 years for works of Corporate.

With only 5 years left on Mickey Mouse’s copyright term in 1998, Congress again changed the duration with the Copyright Term Extension Act, 1998 (CTEA) providing a retroactive extension of the copyright term. It extended the term of protection to the life of the author plus 70 years, and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier. According to the Act works made in 1923 or afterward will not enter the public domain till 2019 or afterward, depending on the date of production. Disney’s Mickey Mouse is set to expire in 2023 and the debate on extension is set to begin again.

The Debate

So why is there so much debate about how long creative work can be protected by copyright? Copyright provides a duality of purpose which is fundamentally at odds with each other. One purpose of copyright is to educate the public culturally by disseminating cultural knowledge. The other purpose is to foster creativity by allowing authors to reap benefits from works for a limited period thus encouraging them to create more works. It is in this battle that the debate for the duration of copyright finds a place.

The longest debate on the duration of a term with respect to copyright laws is in the US. Both proponents and opponents of extension have put forth several arguments in favor of their stand, and this debate is set to resume soon, with the effect of the CTEA expiring at the end of 2018 and the first Mickey Mouse copyright entering the public domain in 2023.

Proponents of extension have maintained that the purpose of copyright is to promote creativity and art by allowing a monopoly to the creators, thus giving them an incentive to create more. According to them, by giving exclusive rights to the creator for a limited time, both the author and the public benefit. The purpose of granting exclusive rights to authors isn’t so that they recoup their initial investment, but to let them earn substantial amounts so that they can create more works. In order to achieve this, copyright terms must be for a considerable period.

Proponents of extension also argue that if works fall into the public domain they will go unused. If owners know that particular copyright is going to lapse into the public domain, they would be unwilling to utilize it further or create derivative works, and the public could lose out.

Another argument put forth by proponents of extension is that due to the increase in life expectancy and longevity of the business, copyright terms must also be extended. Also, with better technology, the lifespan of a created work has become virtually infinite. This means that works can be exploited longer. Therefore, proponents of extension argue that unless copyright term is extended to match the longevity of owners and the longevity of the work itself, it no longer becomes an incentive for authors to create more work.

Copyright is an extension of the creator’s persona. If it gets distorted or tarnished due to lack of protection, creators are discouraged from creating more works, potentially damaging their reputations. This also means that creators will be unwilling to disseminate quality copies of work if they are soon to fall in the public domain and risk being tarnished. This would mean that the public would lose out on culturally rich works.

Opponents of extension argue that authors have always known that their works would fall into the public domain, but this has never deterred them from creating new works. Further, an extension of copyright stifles creativity as another person cannot build upon the works of the owner if it has not entered the public domain. Getting permission and licenses deters new creators from building on already existing works. This means the public would miss out on better works.

Opponents also argue that the increase in life expectancy argument is invalid as copyrights are protected for the lifetime of the author. Hence, if the life expectancy has increased it means that the copyright term will automatically increase as well.

When it comes to business entities owning copyrights, the longevity of the creator is irrelevant. The opponents of extension have argued that copyrights are borrowed rights from the sovereign. Copyright is not inherent, but a statutory, right given by the sovereign. However, irrespective of copyright being a statutory right, it needs to foster creativity. When business concerns know that copyright term is limited to a shorter duration, they are discouraged from investing further or creating derivative works. For example, when concerns like Disney know that their copyright over Mickey Mouse is set to expire soon, they would stop creating further derivative works, such as theme parks, products, animated works, etc.

In 2003, a study proved that the last two major copyright changes before CTEA, the Copyright Act of 1976 and the 1988 Berne Convention, had significant effects on copyright registrations.Yet another study, conducted in 2006, proved that countries that extended the terms of copyright from the author’s life plus fifty years to the author’s life plus seventy years anytime between 1991 and 2002, saw a significant increase in movie production.This clearly shows that copyright extension is in the best interest of creativity.

The Indian Scenario

The media and entertainment industry in India is still in its nascent stage. Copyright protection under the Indian Copyright Act is for a period of 60 years from the death of the author. In 2008 Yash Raj and FICCI approached the HRD Ministry to extend the copyright term to 95 years like in the CTEA. The ministry welcomed film producers’ recommendations in the extension of copyright term for the Copyright Amendment Act, 2010. While Parliament may not have agreed to extend the term of copyright to 95 years like in the US, they did amend the law dealing with a copyright term of films. The amendment has allowed joint authorship of the producer and the principal director for a film. Thanks to the amendment, a principal director will have copyright protected for 70 years, as opposed to the producer who has only 60 years. This has effectively increased the term of protection for movies from 60 years to 70 years. The momentum for increasing copyright terms is just starting and India will soon get to see similar debates as faced by CTEA in the US.

Author: Nadine Kolliyil, an intern at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys looks into the debate surrounding copyright extension in the US, and Bollywood’s attempt to extend copyright term.

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