Stateside With Rosalea - Mickey vs Mouse

Published: Wed 18 Dec 2002 09:04 AM
Stateside With Rosalea - Mickey vs Mouse
I really do wonder what I used to do to amuse myself before the Internet. Last week, curious about an icon with a large E inside a square, I clicked through to find myself squarely back in the eighteenth century. Article 1 Section 8 of the US Consititution, to be precise, where one of the powers given Congress was: "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."
Copyrights and patents. Seems like a straightforward enough paragraph, doesn't it, but "limited times" has been the source of some debate through the years. There have been three main US Copyright Acts, the first in 1909, which gave up to 56 years of protection; the second in 1976, which extended and changed the term to life of the author plus 50 years; and in 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the term of existing and future copyrights by another 20 years.
The big E icon is being carried on many websites because of a case in the US Supreme Court that challenges the 1998 Act. On October 9, 2002, oral argument was heard in Eric Eldred, et al. v. John D. Ashcroft, Attorney General. The petitioners submit that "such a blanket extension of existing terms exceeds Congress's power under the Copyright Clause and it violates the First Amendment." The First Amendment is to do with the right to free speech.
This is the very stuff that Supreme Courts are made of - challenges to state and federal laws about their unconstitutionality. If you're interested in how much time can be spent trying to interpret what a bunch of guys meant a couple of hundred years ago, you can download the 50-page oral argument from The oral argument is only to get the case submitted to the Supreme Court. A ruling is likely in spring 2003.
One of the arguments put forward by the attorney for the petitioners is not that longer copyrights impede progress, but that if Congress can keep changing the length of the copyright protection, then the "limited times" referred to in the Constitution, have effectively become "unlimited times." The Solicitor General's argument on behalf of John Ashcroft is that the Constitution granted power to Congress to exercise its judgment as to what may be benificial.
Another of the main features of the arguments is to do with whether Congress can justifiably make the copyright extension apply to works already in existence. Which is where Mickey Mouse comes in. Walt Disney died in 1966. Under the 1909 law his works would have come out of copyright in 1994. Because the 1976 law was applied retrospectively, that extended the term until 2016 (life plus 50). The 1998 law extended it to 2036, and who knows what law might be passed in the future to extend it yet again.
The big E site is at and a quick link to the US Copyright Act itself is at If you've forgotten what Mickey Mouse looks like take a look at this newly unveiled Alaska Air plane -

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