by Steve Laube
On this day in 1928 the film “Steamboat Willie” made its debut. The main cartoon character (almost named Mortimer!) was featured and Mickey Mouse was born.
You might ask, “So what? Other than fun trivia, what does this mean to me as a writer?” Actually the success of Mickey Mouse and the Disney empire cuts to the heart of today’s copyright laws which affect you and your work. A quick recital of history and you’ll see how Mickey is either your friend or your adversary depending on your opinion of copyright protection.
In 1787 the Founding Fathers established a copyright term of 14 years, and if the author was still alive a renewal for an additional 14 years. Many years later it was extended to 28 years with a 28 year renewal option (a total of 56 years).
Then in 1976 Congress passed a new law that set three new and important rules:
a) copyright protection was defined as the life of the author plus 50 years
b) Material produced before 1922 was considered public domain
c) Material already under copyright in 1976 were given an extension. Their works were protected for 75 years instead of 56 years.
If you do the math, that meant that in 1997 some of these older works were going to start going into the public domain (and Mickey Mouse would become public in 2003). So the corporations began lobbying for a revision to the copyright law.