Welcome to 2019, the year copyrights start expiring again. After a 40-year hiatus, in large part due to the work of the world’s best-known mouse, the United States’ lengthy copyrights will start to terminate again this year.
The purpose of a copyright is to protect intellectual property that is in a tangible medium of expression, such as literary, musical, and artistic works. The first U.S. copyright law, the 1790 Copyright Act, set the maximum length of a copyright at 14 years, with the chance to renew it for an additional 14 years. The purpose was to allow writers and artists to benefit from their intellectual property for a set period of time that would be enough for them to make a profit. Since 1790, Congress has consistently expanded the lengths of copyright. The 1976 Copyright Act sets the period of copyright protection as the life of the creator plus 50 years. The Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998 was the greatest expansion. Under the Copyright Term Extension Act, works by individuals are protected for the author’s life plus 70 years and works made for hire are protected for either 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is sooner. Furthermore, the Act applied retroactively, increasing the copyright length of preexisting copyrights.
Critics have dubbed the Copyright Term Extension Act the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Part of this cynicism comes from the fact that corporations are increasingly holding copyrights instead of individuals as in 1790. Today’s U.S. copyright law can be seen as less about helping starving artists, musicians, and writers make ends meet than it is about helping corporations maximize profit. The consistent expansion of U.S. copyright length has been pushed by corporate lobbyists—chief among them Disney. Disney’s aim is to push the copyright term out as far as possible to protect its crown jewel: Mickey Mouse. The famous cartoon mouse first appeared in the cartoon “Steamboat Willie” in 1928 and is still protected nearly a century later.
But while the Copyright Term Extension Act will still protect Mickey until 2023—95 years after he first appeared on screen—2019 is the first year that copyrights will expire under the Act. Hundreds of works are already lined up to be opened to the public, including poems by Robert Frost and Pablo Neruda, with works by literary giants such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway soon to follow.
The expiration of copyrights will have several tangible benefits for the population at large. Without copyright protection, more editions of works can be made. This will allow more publishers to produce the same work, in turn increasing the size of the market, which will create more competition and lower the prices of these books and other works.
Meanwhile, writers, artists, and composers can base their own works off of works that have entered the public domain without fear of being sued for copyright infringement. For example, when The Great Gatsby’s copyright expires in 2021, writers can adapt versions that are set in the Ottoman Empire or are populated with werewolves and zombies. Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter is hopeful that at least some of the adaptations will be creative and original.
Will Disney step in at the last minute to lengthen U.S. copyrights yet again? It seems unlikely. Politics are not favorable to a further extension like they were in 1998. Legal experts have criticized current copyrights as lasting too long and stifling creativity. So while we should keep a wary eye on Disney and Congress, at least for now we can look forward to enjoying the wealth of literary, artistic, and musical gems from the 1920s entering the public domain.*
* Michael Goodyear is an associate editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.