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Scientists have their version of the Doomsday Clock, and now, entertainment nerds of every type have this: The Disney Doomsday Clock.
What’s this about? Well, if current law stands as it is at the moment of this writing, the first work featuring Mickey Mouse, the 1928 short Steamboat Willy, will enter the public domain in a few years. Why make a Doomsday Clock out of such a thing? I’ll let attorney Steve Schlackman explain it:
In 1976, Congress authorized a major overhaul of the copyright system assuring Disney extended protection. Instead of the maximum of 56 years with extensions, individual authors were granted protection for their life plus an additional 50 years, (which was the norm in Europe). For works authored by corporations, the 1976 legislation also granted a retroactive extension for works published before the new system took effect. The maximum term for already-published works was lengthened from 56 years to 75 years pushing Mickey protection out to 2003. Anything published in 1922 or before was in the public domain. Anything after that may still be under copyright.
Then, with 5 years left to go before the first work featuring Mickey Mouse entered the public domain, this happened:
In 1998, Congress amended the 1976 Act by enacting the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (“CTEA”), named after the deceased Congressman and well-known songwriter Sonny Bono, who was one of the original sponsors of the legislation. . . . Described as ‘bipartisan, noncontroversial legislation’ by Representative Howard Coble, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property, the CTEA was passed by voice votes in both the Senate and the House.
“The CTEA extended federal copyright terms by 20 years. In particular, the CTEA extended the term of copyrights in works created on or after January 1, 1978 to the life of the author plus 70 years. The term of copyrights in works created prior to January 1, 1978 (which predated the change in the 1976 Act to a term based on the life of the author) was also increased by 20 years.
At the time this post was written, Mickey’s copyright term was set to expire on January 1, 2023 — just under 6 years from now. Perhaps by no coincidence, just as we enter the crucial window of opportunity for Disney to extend copyright terms again, Isaac Perlmutter (Chairman of Marvel Entertainment, and one of the most powerful executives at Disney) and his wife Laura Perlmutter have donated at least $3 million to Republicans during this election cycle, after making minimal political contributions in years prior.
Of course, there are complications. While the protection afforded by the 1998 extension to the Sonny Bono act is set to expire on January 1, 2019, there are also issues of trademark to consider. That aside, I’m betting the Disney Doomsday clock won’t reach 0:00 in 6 years, or 10 years, or perhaps… ever. Time will tell.