“Tarzan,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pinocchio,” “Alice in Wonderland, “Cinderella, Peter Pan, “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Sword and the Stone” are just a few of the Walt Disney Co.’s cartoon classics. These hugely popular movies continue to be major money makers for Disney and are mainly responsible for the immensity of the Disney empire. These movies have become a part of our culture and national identity. Did Disney think up these stories? No, they took stories already in the public domain, added a talking parrot and threw in a song or two.
The Disney movies are of course different from the original texts. Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo was far deeper character than any “Disneyfied” morality tale could ever allow for. Yet it is within Disney’s rights to modify and adapt the story anyway they want. But how would Disney react to any interpretations or adaptations of Mickey? If you tried to reinterpret Fantasia you would be up to your ears in lawsuits faster than you could say “Never-Never Land.”
The books these movies were based on were originally copyrighted by their authors and it would have been illegal to use and adapt the stories without the permission of the author (probably only acquired after the exchange of a fat check).
Yet Disney was able to use these stories without paying for them. After a certain period, copyrights on books and other creations expire. After that time, these creative works are considered part of the “public domain” and anyone can use, adapt and interpret them without permission. This is right and just. The role of copyright, as it is enshrined in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, is “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times (emphasis added) to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
As it stands today, copyrights hold for 70 years after the death of the author and 95 years total for copyrights held by corporations. After this exceedingly long time, the work shifts into the public domain. This explains why there are so many different publishers selling the works of Shakespeare. All in all, it’s a pretty good system – authors get plenty of time to profit from and control their work (and thereby give artists the incentive to continue to create) and then the work becomes public so that people can incorporate this old work into new things without worries of copyright infringement.
In 1998, after extensive lobbying from Hollywood, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act which extended copyrights by another 20 years. The act was recently challenged in the Supreme Court by Eric Eldred, who had tried to make Robert Frost’s poetry available on the web under the assumption that the copyright on the material published in 1923 had expired by 1998. His appeal was just denied and now it seems copyrights might be extended continually.
You might think a company like Disney that has benefited so much from expired copyrights would support Eldred. But now the situation is reversed. The copyrights Walt Disney himself had on early versions of Mickey Mouse and other cartoons were due to expire in 2004. If the law was overturned, Disney would lose the copyright on Mickey.
Disney (and society) was provided with the opportunity to benefit from public domain laws, but now that opportunity is in jeopardy if copyrights become held in perpetuity.
Keeping copyrights for so long benefits the extreme few while hurting the majority. Society does not benefit from having Michael Jackson own the copyright on all Beatles songs. Originally in the United States, copyrights were only granted for a maximum of 28 years. It is important that copyrights expire at some point. The recent Supreme Court ruling allowing Congress to extend copyrights for another 20 years opens the door for a series of never-ending extensions. Does anyone really think that Disney will be ready to part with Mickey 20 years down the road?
Just as we allow drug companies to keep the patent on their drugs only long enough to recoup costs and make a nice profit before we open up the market to generic versions, so to should it follow with copyrights.
Some things should not be copyrighted any longer. AOL Time Warner owns the copyright to “Happy Birthday” – and will through at least 2021 – so at your next birthday, unless you want to pay the royalties, don’t sing it in public.
Jess Piskor can be reached at email@example.com.