On November 13th, 2013, Wikileaks revealed one of the TPP’s chapters that deal with intellectual property named the Advanced Intellectual Property Chapter. The provision which covers patent, trademark, copyright… created a huge buzz because of their potential impact on various industries. In this blog post, however, I would focus on only one particular revision under TPP that deals with copyright. In order to understand the potential impact of the copyright revision, this blog post will examine Walt Disney and its successful effort in 1998 to lobby for the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.
Under the new TPP provision, copyright would be extended from 50 years under TRIPS to 70 years. Actually, many TPP countries already have copyright terms of at least 70 years. The U.S, in particular, amended its Copyright Act of 1976 and introduced the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 which extended copyright for authors from life of the author plus 50 years to life of the author plus 70 years. For the works of corporate authorship, the terms would be extended to 120 years from creation compared to 75 years under the Copyright Act of 1976. So, how did this happen and why it happened in 1998?
It turns out that the Act which was also known as the Sonny Bono Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act was the result of heavy lobby efforts from the Walt Disney Company. On behalf of the Act, Walt Disney poured millions of dollars into hiring lobbyists in Washington, contributing to political campaigns, courting California and Florida congressional delegates by promising theme parks opening… Walt Disney had a lot at stake when it came to copyright of its famous Mickey Mouse cartoon character. Mickey Mouse is the official mascot of the company created by Walt Disney founder—Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1928. The year 1998 marked the 70th birthday of the historical cartoon icon. It also meant that Walt Disney would have only 5 years of copyright left under the Copyright Act of 1976. If nothing were to be done for Mickey Mouse, other famous and highly profitable cartoon characters from Disney would fall out of copyright protection as well with Pluto copyright supposedly expired in 2006. Other companies could then jump in and reuse/reinvent Walt Disney’s cartoon characters without paying any fees. Enormous earnings potential from licensing and merchandise would be lost. And we are talking about billions of dollars of earnings at stake. For comparison, in the late 1990s, Winnie the Pooh—a famous cartoon character, though not from Disney generated $2 billion in revenue a year.
You all know the ending of this story. It ended with a happy ending for the giant corporation Walt Disney in 1998: copyright was extended for another 20 years. But it left many people to wonder will it just stop there or will we hear another campaign from Disney for copyright extension in a near future? Will copyright become “evergreen” like what happened with patents for some biotech/pharmaceutical companies? Some might argue authors should have the copyright to their works for forever since after all they created those works. Without copyright protection, who would protect works from being destroyed/distorted by just any random people like what happened with several literacy classics. In 2012, it was reported that classics such as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice were given erotic makeovers by an adult fiction publisher. Who would ever want something like that to happen to Mickey Mouse or Pluto or Donald Duck? In fact, the graph below shows that an evergreen copyright might in fact come true for Disney. They are already planning for copyright extension campaign.
Is it ethical and fair for corporations like Disney to get “evergreen” copyright? I would argue it is not. Disney earned so much money from producing movies based on the public domain. Below is part of the list of 50 famous movies from Disney that were based on works whose copyright has expired:
1. Aladdin (1992): Revenue = $504 million
2. Alice in Wonderland (2010): Revenue = $1.02 billion
3. Beauty and the Beast (1991): Revenue = $425 million
4. Frozen (2013): Revenue = $810.3 million
5. The Lion King (1994): Revenue = $987.5 million
With Copyright extension, Disney gets the best of both worlds. They don’t have to pay for works with expired copyright because the Copyright extension would not be applied retroactively. On the other hand, they get copyright protection for their works. It would not be fair and it should be stopped.