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The Bitter Legacy of Mickey Mouse

Developments of enormous consequence sometimes follow the most mundane of motives.

During the mid-1990s, the giant Disney Corporation became concerned that its 1928 copyright on Mickey Mouse was close to expiration.  Deploying heavy lobbying efforts, it persuaded Congress to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign what was officially entitled the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, but more informally known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”  The result was to extend Mickey’s copyright for another twenty years, and perhaps indefinitely if future corporate lobbying efforts bore similar fruit.

Now I have no particular burning desire to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons without paying for them, and I suspect that those around the world who feel otherwise simply ignore such legal restrictions, just as they watch pirated blockbuster movies only weeks after they are released into the theaters.  So if the Disney executives had merely wanted to protect their rights to old Walt’s lucrative rodent, I wouldn’t have cared in the least.  But since paying Congresspersons to enact such narrowly tailored legislation might have appeared unseemly, they decided to extend all other existing copyrights as well, including the vast number of written works possessing no financial but much intellectual value.

As a direct consequence, the continuous yearly expiration of old copyrights came to a screeching halt at the year 1922, and has moved no further in the last fifteen years. Everything published in America prior to 1923 may be copied, read, and made available without restriction, but for most other works, their precise legal status remains unclear, given the difficulty and inconvenience of determining individual copyright-renewal filings or tracing the legal chain of ownership across sixty or seventy years.  Hence so many of the legal battles subsequently undertaken by Google and various other entities over the legitimate interpretation of “Fair Use” doctrine and the question of what can or can’t be made available on the Internet.

Absent Disney’s unfortunate intervention, hundreds of millions of pages of material, representing the primary source history for American thought during the 1920s and 1930s would have by now reached our fingertips, rather than only be available on the musty shelves of major libraries.  The books and articles in question have negligible financial value to anyone, but carried along in Mickey’s wake, they remain under permanent legal lock and key.

While I am unable to single-handedly overcome the legal barriers of this unfortunate situation, I am doing the best that I can, and earlier this week released a major new extension of my UNZ.org [1] content-archiving system.  My coverage has now includes the near-complete archives of numerous very prominent American publications, including The Nation [2]The New Republic [3]The Atlantic [4], Harpers [5]National Review [6]Commentary [7]Dissent [8]Partisan Review [9]The Public Interest [10]Foreign Affairs [11]The American Historical Review [12]The American Political Science Review [13], and about ninety others, newly added to the system.

All these articles published prior to 1923 are in fully-readable form, while later issues and articles for these extent periodicals are provided in “catalogue” form, providing title, subtitle, author, and date, but without access to the text itself.  Although this situation is clearly not ideal, at least it allows scholars or other researchers to browse the contents of all those periodical issues, as well as to trace the ideological trajectory of notable thinkers, many of whom began their careers writing for The Communist or The Nation, and ended as valued contributors to National Review or Commentary.  Certainly many people are aware that the older neoconservatives might have had this sort of paper trail, but how many know that the first nationally-published piece by Pat Buchanan [14] ran in The Nation, or that Princeton’s Edward Witten [15], one of our greatest theoretical physicists, originally dreamed of a career as a political journalist writing for The New Republic before he switched to particles and field theory?

Given the very broad range of publications now covered—about 1.3 million articles in 65,000 issues from more than 200 periodicals—reasonably comprehensive bibliographies of the nearly half-million distinct authors are now at one’s fingertips.

It is certainly my hope that as time goes by and interest grows, some of these publications may consent to full or partial release of their readable archives, together with the many dozens that have already done so.  There certainly exists a strange state of affairs when the complete archives of a once-prominent but now defunct periodical such as Encounter or The Century is instantly available, but the same is not true for their surviving peers. Perhaps having those tables of contents a tempting click away may eventually help to change this.

 

On an entirely different matter, I was very pleased to see that anthropologist Peter Frost wrote a third consecutive column [16] on my Chinese evolution [17] article, once again occasioning some extended debate. According to Google, readers have now devoted well over 15,000 hours to reading my original article, and I’ve certainly engaged in lengthy private discussions on some of the issues, notably the crucial question of whether there exists any significant case for substantial differences in academic performance between Chinese and Japanese.

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#1 Comment By lester On April 4, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

I used to work at a Cookies By Design. They had to put a little copyright symbol on the Mickey Mouse cookie and charged more for it haha

#2 Comment By Jack Ross On April 4, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

I’ve seen Steamboat Willie and other such cartoons freely available on YouTube.

#3 Comment By Catherine Ranger On April 4, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

One possible solution—let the Mouse have it’s copyright protection, but make him pay for it. Rather than universally extend all copyrights to protect the super-valuable Mickey, allow any legal owner to extend copyright protection beyond an initial statutory perior with a significant renewal fee. The expiration of the copyright would be clear, access to non-extended material would be available, and the government, which provides the enforcement mechanism for copyright protection, would receive at least some reimbursement for that service.

#4 Comment By cka2nd On April 5, 2013 @ 11:45 am

Disney is notoriusly aggressive in defending its copyrights, including against their fair use, and the weakening of copyright laws on behalf of their owners has only encouraged others to be equally unreasonable.

#5 Comment By David Harris On April 5, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

I think Catherine’s comment regarding paying for an extension is a good compromise and, while I don’t have a problem with it, I don’t think requiring a hefty would be necessary to be effective. The majority of the content is owned by people or entities who have no interest in maintaining the right and sometimes aren’t even aware they own it.

As I see it, this is a further illustration of the fact that the issue isn’t that there doesn’t exist a reasonable and workable middle ground but that legislation on issues like this is warped by one loud voice that is seriously balanced until after the effects of the enacted legislation become clear.

#6 Comment By Scott Locklin On April 5, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

A frustrating state of affairs. I’d certainly like to know what Ed Witten was saying about politics in the 60s. Might give some clues as to his Yoda schtique in the physics community.

#7 Comment By Mercer On April 5, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

If you want to make more books published after 1922 available you could support a site located in a country that has copyrights ending fifty years after the author’s death instead of the US law of ninety five years.

One Canadian site, Mobileread, currently has many books available that are public domain in Canada but still under copyright in the US. It is getting rid of the books that are from writers who died fifty to seventy years ago because it is funded by a Swiss citizen who is afraid of being sued.

[18]

#8 Comment By TomB On April 6, 2013 @ 12:56 am

Scott Locklin wrote:

“I’d certainly like to know what Ed Witten was saying about politics in the 60s.”

If I’m not mistaken Scott, Witten saw politics all as a fundamental matter of string-pulling, with any contrary view coming about from those strings of course being pulled (or “vibrating”) in different ways and indeed sometimes even forming entire separate loops and thus worlds of different political dimensions. And as regards any objections about such dimensions being entirely invisible and not subject to any ability to discern them, it was because they are somehow curled up inside what politics we can see.

I.e., impossible to see how this had any effect whatsoever on his thoughts about physics….

#9 Comment By Cole On April 6, 2013 @ 9:49 am

Technical quibble: MM is a trademark, good essentially forever. Copyrights are for individual works–the one in question here is Steamboat Willie.

#10 Comment By Mack Hall, HSG On April 6, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

About fifty years ago some fellows built the house in which I now live. Should they receive a percentage each day I live in the house? Whenever I sell the house? Should the plumber who fixed my shower be paid every time I wash up?

#11 Comment By Scott Lahti On April 7, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

“how many are aware that the first nationally-published piece by [14] ran in The Nation … ?”

Though the article in question, “Jefferson City: The Pen That Just Grew”, appears at UNZ.org in catalog form only for the copyright reasons Ron mentions, here for the time being at least, and slightly annotated, is its [19].

Speaking of marquee third-party candidates in early flight outside their signature orbits later, see the article on public housing by Ralph Nader, [20], in The Freeman for October 1962, representing, according to one commenter, [21], and later reprinted in September 1963 in [22] published by The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) of Irvington, New York.

#12 Comment By James Sullivan On April 7, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

The copyright system was supposed to allow authors to benefit from their works but allow their works to become part of our culture after their death. Mickey Mouse is not the primary example of how lawmakers are paid to change IP laws against the benefit of their constituents.

The people that originally drafted these laws saw both sides of the law but they’ve been amended by people who see only one side. It’s not surprising that people pirate movies when the movie studios are pushing take away the rights of the viewers.

#13 Comment By James Blunt On April 7, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

This article misses the point. Corporations selling music, films, software, books, information etc have but one aim – to make every product a rental, such that the purchaser has no long term rights to what they purchase.
They want to eliminate second hand sales and eliminate “fair use”, if necessary by getting civil liberties removed.
After all, Congress are the best law makers that money can buy.

#14 Comment By Scott Lahti On April 7, 2013 @ 7:09 pm

The sorts of longitudinal border crossings of publishing venue suggested by the cases of Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader can, of course, be multiplied hundredsfold. Libertarian economists with Ancient Mariner memories may recall, primus inter pares, the case of Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993), who while a draftee in 1918 in the Army Air Corps training in Texas – he bookended his stateside service as a self-taught market analyst with the New York Evening Post – wrote freelance pieces on wartime economic policy for The Nation, on which magazine he later served as literary editor (1930-1933), in which latter capacity he, along with his reviews of the latest books by a Who’s Who of period intellectuals, managed to tuck in essays on responses to the Depression informed by such pre-Mises proto-Austrian-school theorists as Philip Wicksteed and Benjamin Anderson (Mencken’s instincts in naming him his successor at the helm of The American Mercury at the end of 1933 would seem to have been as sound as a gold dollar). But as both UNZ.org and eBay (and FEE and Mises.org) will reveal, Hazlitt in his literary-journalistic agility wrote for everybody back then – The American Scholar, The New York Times and its Book Review, Newsweek (the latter two his serial paycheck venues 1934-1946 and 1946-1966 respectively), Reader’s Digest, Saturday Review, Scribner’s

Given the shape-shifting over time of individual minds, political winds and the wildcat mortality of most magazines, reflecting the admixture of “strange bedfellows” in any given venue should be more or less proverbial among those more invested in their own education than in any variant of do-gooder investment in the worldwide triumph of a cause of any stripe. For one of my favorite examples, see the issue of [23], which featured Hazlitt on “The Fallacy of Too Much Planning” – and the democratic socialist (and belated Mises hat-tipper) Robert Heilbroner on “What It’s Like to Be Underdeveloped”!

As for The Nation, flash forward to 1959 and see it assign its review of Hazlitt’s The Failure of the New Economics – whose comprehensive rubble-razing of Keynesian economics reminds us of what Leszek Kolakowski would do twenty years later to the entire tradition of Marxist social philosophy – to future Noam Chomsky collaborator Edward S. Herman. But wait, there’s more! Twenty years after that, in 1978-1979 in the Cato-financed then-biweekly INQUIRY, Murray Rothbard’s tub-thumping for Hazlitt’s The Inflation Crisis, and How to Resolve It appears a few short months before a review of the Henry Kissinger memoir The White House Years by … wait for it … Noam Chomsky.

It’s enough to make every last among the talking heads on our three far-right cable-“news” networks burst their faux-capitalist integuments and thus issue in the classless society, however much classlessness would, on current evidence, seem to have been a going concern long since in our “culture” if not our warp-sped plutocracy. Any downside to such an exercise is left as an exercise for those remaining readers even marginally above the moral age of two.

#15 Comment By njn On April 7, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

“Disney Corporation became concerned that its 1928 copyright on Mickey Mouse was close to expiration.”

To follow up on what Cole said above — please don’t use sloppy wording like this. It makes it sound like if the Sonny Bono Act hadn’t passed, every work ever created by Disney that involved Mickey Mouse would now lack legal protection.

Judging from the rest of the article, I’m pretty sure you understand this, but this area of the law is fraught with misunderstandings, so it pays to be careful with your words.

For example, the sentence I quoted could be changed to something like “Disney Corporation became concerned that its copyright on the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons from 1928 was close to expiration.”

#16 Comment By MBunge On April 8, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

“About fifty years ago some fellows built the house in which I now live. Should they receive a percentage each day I live in the house?”

That is a massive failure of analogy, unless you want to start paying $90,000 or so for every book, movie and song.

Mike

#17 Comment By Stephan Kinsella On April 9, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

Don’t know why the obvious solution does not occur to people: abolish copyright.