Free the mouse: How the Supreme Court may release Mickey into the public domain.
At the National Constitution Center, there is a tree growing in the middle of our core exhibition. Instead of branches, it has large metal rods, and instead of leaves it has 100 video monitors. The American National tree is a tribute to 100 U.S. citizens who have fully availed themselves of their constitutional rights.
Visitors to the Center can walk up to a screen on the tree, touch one of the many faces floating by, and read the stories of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things. Women like Suzette Kilo, who fought to keep her home from being demolished to build a strip mall. Young men like Ryan White, a middle school student suffering from HIV/AIDS, who fought his local school district after they did not allow him to return to school following his diagnosis. And mice, like Mickey. Yes, Mickey Mouse.
Prior to 1998, U.S. copyright law allowed for individuals to have their work protected for the duration of their life plus fifty years and 75 years for a corporation before the work becomes public domain—accessible to everyone. For free.
Obviously panicked at the thought of ceding the world’s most recognizable cartoon character to the public domain, the folks at Disney appealed to then California Congressman Sonny Bono to extend copyright laws to life plus 70 years for individuals and 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation for corporations (whichever comes first).
The law was successfully passed October 27th, 1998 buying Mickey 20 more years to enjoy exclusivity with the Walt Disney Company. But what’s going to happen in 2019, when his number is up again? The upcoming decision in Supreme Court case Golan v. Holder may very well impact his chances to be restored from the public domain, should it actually expire in 10 years.
The case, accepted for review last week by the Supreme Court will decide, according to the SCOTUSblog, “when, if ever, does Congress have the constitutional power to revive copyright protection once it has expired for a creative work.”
The decision will be handed down on October 3rd of this year. Until then, Mickey can at least be sure, that there’s one place where his spot is secure—on the American National Tree.