Disney's Leverage Aids Copyright Extention

Earlier this month, the Walt Disney Company, Time Warner, and the Motion Picture Association of America succeeded in getting Congress to pass legislation that will extend copyrights an additional 20 years, assuming President Clinton signs the changes into law. Copyright owners presently have control over intellectual property for 75 years, after which it passes into the public domain, where it is free for all to use without paying fees or receiving permission.

Disney was a big backer of the move to change the law. Mickey Mouse, the company's original and most popular cartoon character, was scheduled for release in 2003. The coming decade would have also seen Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto stepping out from under the protection of copyright. "We strongly indicated our support for the measure," says Disney spokesman Ken Green in a fine example of corporate understatement.

Disney not only lobbied hard, but they donated thousands of dollars to the campaign funds of key legislators involved in the measure's passage. MPAA President Jack Valenti weighed in on Disney's side with many of these legislators, and Disney CEO Michael Eisner met personally with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS). Lott received a campaign contribution from Disney the same day he announced his support for the changes.

Extended terms for copyrights will bring the United States into line with the European Union, which approved similar changes in 1995. The new limits "give our intellectual property a fair shake in the rest of the world," according to Republican Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee.

Not surprisingly, Coble is another beneficiary of the Disney Company. His campaign fund received $5000, as did that of Democrat Howard Berman of North Hollywood, CA, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. Ten of the thirteen original sponsors of the House bill and eight of the twelve sponsors in the Senate received donations from Disney's political action committee. Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, who is up for re-election, received the largest amount, well over the $6000 given to Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, one of the bill's primary sponsors.

The bill was opposed by various consumer groups and the American Libraries Association, who conducted an underfunded effort to have lawmakers reject the proposal. They did win some limited-use rights for schools, archives, and libraries, who will be able to use copyrighted materials during the final twenty years without first obtaining the permission of the copyright owners.