In 1998, Disney led an entertainment industry lobbying effort that resulted in the term of copyright being extended by 20 years, even for works that had already been created — a law with an incoherent basis, given that the US copyright system is constitutionally constrained to passing laws to promote new creative works (giving creators more copyright on works they've already created doesn't get them to make new ones, and it reduces the ability of new artists to remix existing works, the way Disney did with the Grimm's fairy tales).
20 years later, the US public domain is set to start expanding again, with works from 1923 entering the public domain next year, and Mickey Mouse cartoons entering the public domain starting in 2024, with Steamboat Willie.
Ars Technica's Timothy B Lee polled lobbyists for the record and movie industries and both of them said they weren't planning any legislative pushes this year. If that's true, then starting next Dec 31, artists and publishers will start to remix and rerelease works from 1923 on, creating works and businesses that would have to be destroyed if the term of copyright was subjected to another retrospective copyright extension. With every year that goes by, the constituency that would be manifestly harmed by another extension would grow and grow — artists, businesses and audiences who would object to any attempt to take away their works. As works made from these public domain materials gain popularity, they will become recognizable symbols of the slow censorship of the eternal copyright, in which works that might delight us as much as Disney's Snow White are killed before they can be born, choked out of legal sunlight by the massive canopy that Disney's tall trees has spread overtop the fertile soil of creativity.
EFF's Daniel Nazer suggests that the studios know that there would be a big pushback now — the days of copyright being a wonky, obscure issue that fronts the families of dead artists as human shields for policies that let big companies lock up more and more of our shared culture are over.
A good indicator that this is true is the new split between artists' groups and the entertainment lobby. The Authors Guild — notorious for advancing extremely broad, censorious theories of copyright — told Lee that the Guild "does not support extending the copyright term, especially since many of our members benefit from having access to a thriving and substantial public domain of older works,If anything, we would likely support a rollback to a term of life-plus-50 if it were politically feasible." It will be very difficult to sell term extension as a measure to benefit artists if prominent artists' groups are speaking out against it.
The other factor is that Congress is a total shambles, its calendar dominated by shutdowns and chaotic attempts to ram through the extreme agenda of the GOP electoral majority that represents a numeric minority of Americans, and the chances of any laws getting passed are slim.
But there's always the possibility that copyright term extension would be slipped into must-pass legislation, a budget or a key appropriation. That's a risky game, given the possibility that this would spark a public uprising to kill it (there's plenty of Conservative animus for the entertainment industry, after all, and the 1998 term extension was counted as a major achievement by Bill Clinton and his acolytes, so this could be painted as greedy, corporate-money-fattened Republicans helping to preserve the hated legacy of the Clintons).
"We are not aware of any such efforts, and it's not something we are pursuing," an RIAA spokesman told us when we asked about legislation to retroactively extend copyright terms.
"While copyright term has been a longstanding topic of conversation in policy circles, we are not aware of any legislative proposals to address the issue," the MPAA told us.
Why Mickey Mouse's 1998 copyright extension probably won't happen again [Timothy B Lee/Ars Technica]