How Mickey Mouse Killed the Public Domain

On January 1, 2014, hundreds of works of art, literature and film were supposed to enter the public domain — to be used and modified by anyone for any purpose. Classic books like The Cat in the Hat, From Russia With Love, and On the Road; and landmark films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men were all set to have their copyright protections expire, but it didn’t happen. In fact, nothing has entered the public domain in over a decade and nothing will until 2019 at the very earliest.

It all started with a mouse. Walt Disney created the character of Mickey Mouse in 1928. Under the U.S. Copyright Law of 1976, the character was supposed to have copyright protection for 50 years after the death of his creator. But in 1998, five years before the expiration of their copyright, the Walt Disney Company, worried about losing control of a brand worth an estimated $3 billion a year, successfully lobbied Congress to extend all U.S. copyrights for an additional 20 years. Now, anything created after 1923 is locked up by strict copyright terms.

Under current law, the artistic commons of our society withers while trusts and corporations get rich off the work of people who have been dead for nearly a hundred years. Without works passing into the public domain, we are losing a valuable wellspring of inspiration.

Public domain works can be digitized by libraries; are available for free use in education and research; and can be adapted, translated, reused or incorporated into new work. Under current laws, works like West Side Story, which is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, could never exist (not without the author being bankrupted by usage fees).

Without some kind of reform, we may never see new works enter the public domain. If I publish an influential book in the next 10 years and go on to live into my 80s, the rights to my book will be owned by someone until sometime around the year 2140 — an absurdly long time. Generations of talented artists are missing out on the opportunity to build upon the legacy of their forebears. And we are missing out on their creative leaps.

It’s time to reclaim our books. It’s time to roll back copyright terms to a reasonable length that still protects authors but prevents companies from profiting off them in death. It’s time the Grinch, James Bond and Dean Moriarty join the ranks of Tom Sawyer, Hester Prynne and Count Dracula.

Because these characters and these stories don’t belong to publishers, they belong to all of us.

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Jonny Eberle is a public domain fanatic and fierce advocate of creative freedom. He’s also a writer and tweeter in Tacoma, WA. You can follow him at @jonnyeberle. Thanks for reading!

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