We’ve written plenty of times about the importance of the public domain around here, and one of the biggest beneficiaries of the public domain has been Disney, a company which has regularly mined the public domain for the stories it then recreates and copyrights. Of course, somewhat depressingly, Disney also has been one of the most extreme players in keeping anything new out of the public domain, as pointed out by Tom Bell’s excellent “mickey mouse curve” showing how Disney has sought to push out the term of copyrights every time Mickey Mouse gets near the public domain. (Techdirt)
I’ve talked about this before - click through to see “The Mickey Mouse Curve”, showing how Disney lobbies Congress to extend copyright every time Mickey Mouse is about to come into the public domain. It’s pretty despicable on a lot of levels, but what gets me the most is that it goes against everything copyright was meant to do. It was a deal between the public and content creators that gave the content creators a monopoly on their work for a limited time. In return, after that time, where it was assumed the creator could earn some money from the work, the work would be given to the public to adapt and build on. It makes absolutely no sense to retroactively alter the deal. Clearly the original deal was enough for the creator to create - there’s no need to alter the deal later.
Here’s an equivalent situation. You call Joe’s Lawn Service and ask them to cut your lawn. They tell you it’ll be $25, which you agree to, and Joe cuts your lawn. Then Joe comes back a year later and tells you that original deal wasn’t really enough to get him to cut your lawn, and he needs another $10. Another year later, Joe’s Lawn Service is bought out by Lawncorp. Lawncorp’s lawyers send you a nasty letter telling you that your deal with Joe wasn’t enough to get him to cut your lawn, and Lawncorp now needs another $10, plus legal fees.
But Joe has already cut your lawn. Clearly the $25 you paid Joe back then was sufficient motivation for Joe to cut your lawn. You know this because Joe cut your lawn.
Now, Disney may argue that Mickey Mouse and Disney are so entwined that losing their exclusive right to Mickey Mouse would irreparably harm their brand. It’s a convincing argument, but it’s completely irrelevant to discussions of copyright. There is no provision in copyright that guarantees corporate profits a century later. Trademark law is different - they can keep the trademark forever so long as they’re using it in commerce.
This is especially important now. When Mickey Mouse was created, there were fewer people creating content with any sort of meaningful audience. Now anyone with a computer or smartphone can have ten million views on YouTube or publish a best-seller on Amazon or any number of other things. Copyright used to be a deal between the content creators and the public. Now it’s a deal between the public and the public, because everyone is a creator. And still it’s only Disney’s interests being represented in the law.