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Copyright laws are supposed to balance two interests: the creator's ability to profit from his work and the public's access to that work. Copyrights now last 50 years after the death of the author, or, if the copyright holder is a corporation, 75 years from the original copyright; after that, the public's interest in access kicks in, and works revert to the public domain where they can be published in scholarly editions and generally absorbed into the culture.
You might think half a century ample time for the heirs of an author to gather golden eggs. But as the money to be made from creative content goes up, multiplying astronomically with the proliferation of new media, the prospect of letting go at the 50-year mark looks less attractive to big owners of creative material such as Disney, the recording industry and the Motion Picture Association of America. These heavyweight copyright holders are among the backers of a 20-year extension to the copyright law, a proposal that has passed the House but has not been taken up in the Senate.
Proponents say they must match the recently extendedd European copyright law to keep competitive advantage in the red-hot international market for what is uninvitingly known as "cultural product." Without an extension they also stand to lose such golden-egg-laying geese as their caches of classic movies from the 1920s and 1930s, landmark American modernist works and, in 2004, Mickey Mouse himself.
This is clearly a different order of copyright issue from the era when a work that chanced to survive 50 or 75 years could be considered pretty much a part of the culture already. Now distributors own vast stockpiles of material whose possibilities include not just sequels and adaptations but an apparently insatiable worldwide demand for clothing, children's furnishings, spinoffs, theme partks and other packaging. Meanwhile, a much higher proportion than before of popular culture--especially for children--consists of corporate-owned, copyrighted images and characters whose use is carefully regulated. Kids who might once have performed school plays about Cinderella cannot do the same with Barbie, Barney, Daffy Duck or even Winnie the Pooh, all of whose copyright owners vigorously enforce their rights--in a few celebrated instances against elementary schools and summer camps.
Opposition to the extension has come mostly from educators, artists and researchers, especially those waiting for access to papers and archives that also enter the public domain when copyright lapses. They too are working in a narrower space than formerly: Court decisions in favor of copyright holders have tightened the exceptions for classroom use and for quoting from unpublished letters in biographies. Why lengthen the duration of rights already so sweeping? Fifty years seems long enough.