Big Media wins, innovation loses

In 1790, the founding fathers of the United States gave authors a copyright that lasted 14 years. Over the years, Congress has repeatedly extended copyright terms. In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended existing and future copyrights by 20 years. Today, copyrights extend to 70 years beyond the death of the creator of a work, and 95 years for corporations.

Recently, Lawrence Lessig and others challenged the Sonny Bono act. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly rejected their challenge. This means that not only has Congress repeatedly failed to put the public interest above the interests of corporate lobbyists, but that the Supreme Court is happy to give them carte blanche to do so. Lawrence writes in his weblog:

…if there is any good that might come from my loss, let it be the anger and passion that now gets to swell against the unchecked power that the Supreme Court has said Congress has. When the Free Software Foundation, Intel, Phillis Schlafly, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, Kenneth Arrow, Brewster Kahle, and hundreds of creators and innovators all stand on one side saying, “this makes no sense,” then it makes no sense. Let that be enough to move people to do something about it. Our courts will not.

Irony #1: Disney is terrified of the public domain and has shows that they will go to any lengths to keep even their earliest works out of it. But as Dan Gillmor points out in his column:

Walt Disney understood the value of the public domain, and used it precisely as other great artists had done. He updated an out-of-copyright character to create Mickey Mouse, for example, and launched an empire.

The company he founded later used French writer Victor Hugo’s work, which was also no longer owned by anyone, to create a cartoon based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame saga. The Disney animators had every right to build new works on old ones — and the public also got the benefit. Try the same thing with Mickey Mouse and you’ll be hauled into court faster than you can say ”Goofy.”

Irony #2: Yesterday, CNN’s Lou Dobbs Moneyline asked, “Should we be concerned that a small number of companies now own or control almost all national network television, radio, newspaper and Web properties?” [I updated this to reflect the exact question after finding this transcript of the show.] Today, Lou reported that 96% of respondents said “yes”, noting:

…in the history of this broadcast, that is the largest margin of preference in any poll that we have ever conducted. Not scientific, but very interesting.

CNN, of course, is a property of Big Media behemoth AOL Time Warner. | Associated Press story | News.com story | Reuters story | Eldred v. Ashcroft site | Dan Gillmor: Supreme Court endorses copyright theft | Wired: Court deaf to public-domain pleas