Page 40


time” simply doesn’t apply to the copyright laws that Congress passes. Instead, if a huge corporation is about to lose a valuable copyright, they just lobby Congress into extending it. The large conglomerates win, and the public loses. So we hope to restore the delicate balance between copyright owners and the public. We are also saying the law violates the first amendment, the right to free speech. I have a right to publish these works because they are entering the public domain. Congress extension of the copyright term prevents me from doing that, so they have suppressed my free speech. TO: Who was behind the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act? EE: The first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, was produced in 1927, and was about to go into the public domain. That made Disney very nervous. Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO, went to Congress and started giving big contributions to the right people, the heads of the various committees, etc. In October of 1998, the house was debating whether to impeach Clinton. On the eve of the impeachment vote, they had needed to get some other bills out of the way, including the Copyright Term Extension Act. So they pulled this out of committee and passed it quickly, without a quorum, and without a single hearing. There hasn’t been a hearing on copyrights for years; it has been under the radar screen. The first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, was about to go into the public domain. That made Disney very nervous. Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO, went to Congress and started giv ing big contributions to the right people, the heads of the various committees, etc. The large copyright owners like to use the threat of piracy to justify complete control. But that is just an excuse. They want complete control over how consumers use their works because it gives them a monopoly on artistic expression. With perfect control, they can rent out their products to us as payper-view forever. This is in direct opposition to what the Founding Fathers intended when they granted the first copyrights. The idea was to reward a creator for publishing a work, but then allowing for it to go into the public domain, and be available for other artists to make derivative works. This is an essential right in a true democracy. Every generation needs to revisit and reinterpret the works of previous generations. Most works are, in one way or another, the reworking of a previously existing work. It is very, very rare that something is completely original. It is especially ironic that Disney has made a couple of dozen films from stories in the public domain Pinocchio, Snow White, Cinderella. They didn’t pay a penny for those stories. Disney is the master of reinterpreting old works for a contemporary audience, and now they want to stop others from doing the same. They are living proof that a strong public domain helps creativity and innovation. TO: How will the law change if you win your case? EE: We are only asking that the Copyright Term Extension Act be overturned, which would return copyright terms to what they were in 1997: 50 years and 75 years for works for hire. If the court gives a strong ruling stating that extended copyrights retroactively is unconstitutional, then a few other previous acts of Congress would also fall, and further shorten copyright terms. Personally, I am not convinced that the copyright law should ever have been extended beyond the 28-year maximum created by Congress in 1790. The problem is right now the system doesn’t provide for registration and renewal. If you create something, it is automatically copyrighted the next hundred years or so, whether you intend to make money on it or not. There has to be some sort of system for renewal, so that these works don’t just sit in somebody’s vault forever, unused. If artists don’t renew their copyrights, then somebody else gets the chance to use it. At this point, with the rapid advancement of art and writing across the internet, and the rapid advance of all kinds of digital creations, it seems to me that locking works up for 95 years is just ridiculous. My lawyer Larry Lessig has presented the idea that copyrights should last five years, with the option to renew a limited number of times. TO: How do you expect the Supreme Court will rule? EE: I am optimistic, but it is difficult to predict. This is what is known as a case of first impression. No one has challenged the copyright act in this way before. But just because no one else has bothered to contest it before, doesn’t mean they won’t rule in our favor. They agreed to hear it. This court is known to be rather conservative, but this case really transcends political paradigms. The people who believe in a literal reading of constitution, who tend to be conservative, clearly support us. If you look at the intent of the Founding Fathers, then the facts are on our side. Jefferson was against the ideas of monopolies in ownership, and had to be persuaded to grant copyrights. He ultimately felt that the wording of the constitution and the first amendment would effectively limit that monopoly. Madison too. We have a lot of constitutional historians writing briefs for us, and the other side doesn’t have any of that. At the same time, I think our case appeals to liberals who are tired of a corrupt Congress that bows to the wishes of giant media conglomerates. I think the court could very well decide in our favor. But even if we don’t win in court, we will have succeeded in sparking a dialogue about copyrights in this country. That is a big first step. Michael May is a writer in Austin. Eldritch Press can be found at www. eldritchpress. org 12120102 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9