CTEA: Protecting Mickey Mouse Over Public Interest?

The “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 is one of the most controversial extensions to copyright law in recent memory. Until 1998, works were protected under the general ruling of the Copyright Act of 1979 which provided protection for the duration of the author’s life plus 50 years (“Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code”). In comparison, CTEA extended the protected by 20 years before a work enters public domain or 120 years since creation whichever is first. At its origin, CTEA was passed by the 104th Congress who wanted to use premises found in the European statute created at the Berne Convention that the United States had not taken part in, and extend the copyright term past the minimum of 50 years required in hopes to quench exploitation of works and promote new works.  Some argue that the extension is excessive and unnecessary because the 50 year extra protection is enough to protect works from exploitation until becoming public domain and sufficient time to promote new uncopyrighted ideas. However, others argue that this extension will further protect the authors works in foreign countries and provide incentives to preserve works due to the exclusive right added to them (“Bill Summary & Status…”). While the author’s rights are at the core of the initial issue to extend the copyright protection, the citizens who are denied these works from public domain may be suffering more than the estates of the copyright holders who would lose 20 extra years of protection.

On a larger scale, certain supporters of the bill had good reason to want a copyright extension; for instance, The Walt Disney Company knew the first Mickey Mouse cartoon videos would soon enter public domain under the previous copyright law, and wanted the extension so no one could replicate without their permission for another 20 years (Slaton). Others like the estate of George Gershwin wanted extra protection as well. The argument of supporters included modern times required extra protection from copyright infringement due to threats like easier copying and sharing over the internet. Iconic works like the original Mickey Mouse cartoons are a direct connection to the mission and image the Disney Company portrays to the public for its business. A defamation of those images can reflect negatively on the company and promote a stir they would rather avoid entirely.

Alternatively, opposition to the act also had good reason for their stance and brought cases to the Supreme Court in order to try to get CTEA repealed. In the case of Eldred v. Ashcroft in which Eldred appealed CTEA under the grounds that the extension did not promote scientific discovery and thus was not allowed to be enacted by Congress. Eldred had a stake in retracting the copyright extension because of his private online publishing business of rare public domain books as described in further and possibly biased detail by Wired.com. However he lost and CTEA was upheld because “there did exist a rational basis for concluding the CTEA promoted the progress of Science, as set forth in the Copyright Clause of the Constitution” (“Office of General Council”) and that CTEA did not violate first amendment rights. Justice Stevens dissented this landmark first case boldly stating “the fact that Congress has repeatedly acted on a mistaken interpretation of the Constitution does not qualify our duty to invalidate an unconstitutional practice when it is finally challenged in an appropriate case” in response to the accusation that Congress has retroactively extended a number of copyright cases in the past (“Office of General Council”). Here it seems that the discontent had no effect in changing CTEA and the law still stands as it was today.

Whether or not The Copyright Term Extension Act hurts large companies like Disney or estates of composers is not really the big issue at hand. The key issue is if this copyright extension hurts or helps the public by holding off on works entering public domain. As far as entrepreneurs like Eldred are concerned, the extension prevents people from receiving cultural works that they deserve and may not otherwise be able to get through normal copyrighted publications. The estates and companies that benefit from their hold over these works are made up of people who also subsequently benefit, however instead the citizens who are denied easier access to literary works that are rare because of their age suffer. The degree to which one outweighs the other is negotiable and subjective without any real way of knowing if there would be a direct impact on the general public’s want to access these protected works, or whether that extension does not really impact the average person’s day to day life.  The copyright holders received the extension in order to further promote the original ideals of copyright which are to promote scientific progress and the innovation of new ideas. At the core of those ideals Congress had the authority provided by the Constitution to extend the terms and chose to follow European lead as set at the Berne Convention. As far  as current arguments stand neither opinion is more deserving than the other, as both have valid reasons for wanting less protection or more protection. Taking into account the nature of people, either way one group would be displeased by the passing of nearly any copyright term limit bill.


“Bill Summary & Status 104th Congress (1995 – 1996) S.483All Information.” Bill Summary & Status. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d104:SN00483:@@@L&summ2=m&>.

Lee, Timothy. “15 Years Ago Congress kept Mickey Mouse out of the Public Domain, Will They Do It Again?.” Washington Post 25 10 13, n. pag. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/10/25/15-years-ago-congress-kept-mickey-mouse-out-of-the-public-domain-will-they-do-it-again/>.

Slaton, Joyce. “A Mickey Mouse Copyright Law?.” Wired. 13 01 99: n. page. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://www.wired.com/politics/law/news/1999/01/17327>.

“Office of General Counsel.” Summary of Federal Laws –. The Catholic University of America, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://counsel.cua.edu/fedlaw/ctea.cfm>.

United States. “Copyright”. Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code. Web. <http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap3.html>.


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