Opposing Copyright Extension

Commentary on Copyright Extension

Reader Commentary on the Dinitia Smith Article in the

New York Times, published by the Times on April 5, 1998

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Copyrights Can Inhibit Expression

To the Editor:

    Your article on copyrights (Arts pages, March 28) presented some of the arguments on either side of the Congressional initiative to extend the term of protection. While your article makes clear that the cost of extensions may be to limit the freedom of some artists and writers, it fails to note that the particular freedom limited is that of speech and expression. Control of copyright can be used all too easily to control the writing of history.

    For this reason our political ancestors in England and in America were profoundly ambivalent about granting copyright and insisted on its strict limitation. One would hope that our current leaders would be similarly vigilant in the defense of our freedom.

Gambler, Ohio, March 28, 1998

The writer is a professor of art history at Kenyon College.

Trademark Longevity

To the Editor:

    Re: “Immortal Words, Immortal Royalties? Even Mickey Mouse Joins the Fray” (Arts pages, March 28): While a particular Disney cartoon may fall into the public domain when its copyright expires, Disney’s trademarks will be protected as long as they are in active use.

    Despite a lapse in copyright protection for a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Disney’s lawyers could still lash out at anyone using the trademarked character for commercial purposes. “Kodak” and “Coca-Cola” have been valid trademarks for longer than 75 years and show no signs of running out.

Old Greenwich, Conn.
March 28, 1998

Shakespeare’s Sources

To the Editor:

    Your article on copyrights (Arts pages, March 28) begins by asking, “Should Shakespear have gotten royalties for ‘West Side Story,’ since it was based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’?” Like all creative people, Shakespeare drew upon the common heritage of his culture by freely using the stories and songs of an earlier time. In this case, it was a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke, “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet,” published 33 years before Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet.”

    Proposed Federal legislation to extend the terms of copyrights will stifle creativity and impede scholarship by forcing future artists to obtain permission to use works by people who have been dead for more than 50 years.

Madison, Wisc., March 31, 1998

The writer is director of the general library system of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Uncle Sam’s Childhood

To the Editor:

    According to your article on efforts to extend the copyright law (Arts pages, March 28), the United States “might never have adopted Uncle Sam as a symbol” if it had had to pay royalties. In fact, the image, created by Thomas Nast, was never formally adopted as a national symbol; it evolved over many years.

    The character derives from a late-18th-century portrayal of a young populist figure, Brother Jonathan, as an image of our fledgling country. Uncle Sam first appeared circa 1836 as an old ailing figure in a dressing gown of stars and stripes in an anti-Jackson cartoon by E. W. Clay. In 1843 Uncle Sam was pictured again by Clay, in 18th-century garb; in 1870 Joseph Pepper introduced chin whiskers in the style of Horace Greely.

    In 1872 Nast amalgamated several images into the figure we now recognize. Whether his claim to a copyright would hold up in court is debatable. Clay would give him a run for his money.

New York, March 31, 1998