Last year I reported on Disney’s shady practice of spending millions to lobby Congress for copyright extensions every time Mickey and the gang were set to enter the public domain. Now business as usual has taken a major turn as Congress has neglected to pass a copyright extension bill before the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve.
That means works first published in 1923 are now public domain. Lest I inflate your hopes too much, they don’t include Mickey Mouse et al. However, Disney will lose their copyright on Mickey in 2024 assuming Congress doesn’t issue another copyright extension before then–which evidence suggests they won’t.
“There’s now a well-organized, grassroots lobby against copyright expansion,” Grimmelmann tells Ars. There are large business interests now on the anti-expansion side. Also a wide popular movement that they can tie it into.”
The rise of the Internet and its remix culture means that a lot of people now benefit from a growing public domain in ways that wasn’t true in 1998. That includes big companies like Google but it also includes grassroots communities like Wikipedia editors and Reddit users. This emerging copyright reform coalition flexed its lobbying muscles in 2012 when it overwhelmingly defeated an Internet filtering bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act.
So if the usual suspects had pushed for another copyright extension, they would have had a serious fight on their hands. Digital rights groups, online activists, and lobbyists from big technology companies would have swarmed Capitol Hill making the case against copyright extension. Evidently, major rights holders didn’t have the stomach for another battle like that.
Of course, it’s possible they could make another effort in the future. Remember, Congress allowed one year’s worth of copyrighted works to expire in January 1998 before passing a term extension that year.
But there’s reason to think that this time is different. Today’s opponents of copyright extensions are vastly better organized and better funded than the ragtag band that tried to stop the 1998 copyright extension.
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