Celebrating the Mickey Mouse Protection Act might seem a little odd as it was and is a naked power grab by corporate interests. Still, even such do pass and so it is with the effects of the Act. So, from today, Yes We Have No Bananananas* is out of copyright:
The story itself:
Yet the same freedom of movement would not be given to those famous lines — “the woods are lovely, dark and deep”. They would be carefully guarded by Frost’s estate with the aid of a 1998 law that extended copyright protection from 75 to 95 years for works published from 1923. Today, however, Frost’s poem and everything else published in the US that year will become free — a cultural moment that is being celebrated as “Public Domain Day”. Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Charlie Chaplin’s film The Pilgrim, cartoons featuring Felix the Cat, the song Yes, We Have No Bananas, and Cecil B DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments, with its famous imagining of the parting of the Red Sea, will be free to all who wish to rework or re-release them. Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, said that the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act had halted, for 20 years, the flow of literature and art into the public domain. Works from 1922, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, became free from copyright in 1998 but anything published the following year was protected.
Our essential problem is that invention and innovation are akin to public goods. They’re difficult and expensive to create and yet once they are they’re very easy to copy. Thus people find it difficult to make money out of them. Given that we think incentives matter that difficulty in profiting from the effort leads to less of that invention and innovation being done. Well, we think so, less than we’d possibly like.
So, patents upon inventions, copyright on creations and so on, the deliberate inventing out of the air property rights to these things. So that people have a limited time to profit, then we can all do stuff. It not so much the copying that we’re trying to encourage though, it’s derivative creation.
Hey, that’s a great idea, but I’d do it this slightly bit differently – and so we get another expression of the similar idea. We need to balance – OK, we don’t need to but perhaps we’d like to – that protection of original creation so that people do it while still allowing as much as we can of the derivative. For both enrich our lives.
Patent might be about right in length these days. 20 years for example. Amazon’s One Click should never have been a patent but at least it is expired now and no one does have to pay the royalty. Drug makers get about 10 years – it takes perhaps 10 years to get the drug licenced. Hey, maybe not entirely right but about so.
Copyright has got entirely out of hand. Used to be 50 years after death in the UK. Long before that it was 7 years from creation, you could extend by re-registering. Then we harmonised in the EU and all went up to Germany’s 70 years after death of the creator. Way too long but, whatever. The US then went to 95 years. That’s the Mickey Mouse bit.
It’s not that anyone is really trying to protect the first cartoon, Steamboat Willy. Revenues from that are by now trivial. But once that character, Mickey, enters public domain from that one cartoon then all derivatives from that character in that one cartoon enter public domain. No, that doesn’t mean that all derivations of all Mickeys do – the rounder face and ears etc, the Fantasia stuff, all that stays in copyright until 95 years after the specific release. But the basic set up of the character, with whatever specifics are in Steamboat Willie, enter public domain – well, it used to be 70 years – 95 years after release.
You can see why Disney didn’t like this. And the correct answer is that Disney can go boil their heads but that’s not how politics works.
Still, unless they extend again – unlikely really – then all of these things will be entering public domain again after this hiatus. Time cures many if not most things that is.
From Sir Pterry, she knew how to spell it but not when to stop.