Copyright Protection in 2014

Congress may be looking once again at extending the copyright protection for Disney’s Steamboat Willie as we approach the tenth year anniversary of Eldred v. Ashcroft.

As some of you may remember, Congress extending the term of copyright protection in 1998 to continue protection for works of art which were set to expire.  Some of those works included a number of famous items which still had some commercial life, such as Disney’s Steamboat Willie, Lady and the Tramp, The 7 Year Old Itch, Rebel without a Cause, The Body Snatchers, The End of Eternity, Tutti Frutti and other books, songs and movies.

Under the prior copyright law, which existed until 1978,

Up to 85% of all copyrighted works from 1983 might have entered the public domain on January 1, 2012.

That means that if the pre-1978 law were still in effect, we could have seen 85% of the copyrighted works created prior to 1983 enter the public domain on January 1, 2012.  As it stands now, works published before 1923 are in the public domain.  Works published after 1923 until 1955 may be in the public domain if the copyright holder did not comply with the notice, renewal, or other copyright requirements which existed under the old law. However, determining whether these works are in the public domain can be difficult. To help, the Copyright Office has provided a term sheet effective January 1, 2013.

In the early 2000’s a law professor Mr. Eldred,  challenged the 1998 Copyright term extension.  Specifically, Mr. Eldred challenged Congress’s ability to retroactively, continually extend the copyright protection on these works.  Mr. Eldred on behalf of Libraries and Universities argued that the extension was in violation of Article 1 section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. In that section, the Constitution grants Congress limited 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

Congress’s retroactive extension of the Copyright term, Mr. Eldred argued, amounted to an indefinite term of protection.  Allowing Congress to continually extend the term of protection for works of art would provide an unlimited term of protection for these works.  This continued protection was not a “Limited Time” as provided by the U.S. Constitution.

In January 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Mr. Eldred’s arguments and held that the 1998 Copyright Extension was within Congress’s ability to extend and retroactively apply that extension towards the protection of Copyright Works.  Even if the term was not definite, it was not indefinite…

Now that the 1998 Extension is coming to an end some legal scholars are wondering will Disney and the other movie companies seek yet another extension of time to maintain the exclusivity of their copyrighted works??

Feel free to post your thoughts below.