Disney’s recent lobbying efforts have extended copyright laws far past their original expiration date. As a result, Mickey Mouse will not enter the public domain until 2024, and Star Trek won’t enter the public domain until 2060. In addition to these setbacks, works from 1923 only just recently became public domain as of this year. According to Stanford University Libraries, “the term public domain refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws. The public owns these works.” Thusly, property in the public domain can be repurposed, reused and redistributed by anybody and everybody.
Some of the greatest books and films of the last century have been adaptations of previously written works. Human history has built itself upon the great works of our ancestors; as a result, placing works into the public domain is not only necessary, it’s natural. Therefore, Disney has prevented hundreds, if not thousands, of adaptive literary and cinematic masterpieces from being remastered. We can, however, prevent further damage if we reinstall the fair system of copyright laws that our Founding Fathers implemented.
The first American copyright laws trace all the way back to 1790. The Founding Fathers established a 14 year clause, with the option to renew it once more for an additional 14 years. 180 years later, Disney lobbied Congress to pass the Copyright Act of 1976, which allows owners of the property to have sole rights to it for “either 75 years or the life of the author plus 50 years”.
The public domain is a beautiful creative playground, a landscape for artists to reinvent and celebrate the works of the past by bringing them into the modern age. For example, according to IMDB, Shakespeare has been reinvented 1,095 times in sci-fi, fantasy and crime-dramas with new and unique film and television adaptations; “The Shape of Things,” “As You Like It,” “West Side Story,” “Warm Bodies,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Romeo + Juliet,” the list goes on.
Additionally, some of the most culturally phenomenal pieces of cinema have come out of public domain novels including “Frankenstein” (1818), “Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde” (1886) and “Dracula” (1897). We’ve witnessed numerous creative takes on these stories, each having their own sense of uniqueness including eight Universal Studios “Frankenstein” films, 123 film versions of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, and over 200 feature film appearances by Dracula. Without the public domain, a large portion of today’s popular culture would not exist.
Before the company was swallowed by Disney in 2013, LucasArts licensed hundreds of comic book artists and novelists to write stories that would take place in the Star Wars universe. This creative playground incarnated beloved characters and storylines that have even made their way into Disney’s new “Star Wars” films. More importantly, these novelists used the creative license given to them by George Lucas to create a whole subculture of over 402 published literary works that “Star Wars” fans across the world can enjoy. In spite of the 1976 Copyright law, imagine all the film franchises with rich science fiction universes that deserve to be explored.
Aside from being able to do more culturally up-to-date renditions of past works, the public domain can be used to express the political turmoils of our modern day. “West Bank Story” is a 2005 musical comedy about a Palestinian girl and an Israeli boy, from rival families, who fall in love. The Romeo & Juliet-esque film was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that same year. In 2007, it won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film at the 79th Academy Awards. If Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet wasn’t in the public domain, there would be no “West Bank Story.” But a story of division, tribalism, family friction and intolerance is a human conflict which speaks to the human condition. And the inner struggles of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deserve to be told through love, comedy, pain, heartbreak and through all the other things that make it both beautiful and awful to be human.
Short independent films like “West Bank Story” enrich our culture, by drawing upon works of the past because art is recyclable, it is a renewable energy source because at the heart of every story is pain.
But the film studios are not enriching our culture when they sit on properties for years without ever touching them. Yet they wouldn’t dare put these properties into the public domain, making these greedy tendencies synonymous to that of a child’s: Even if they’re not using the toys, they still dont want anyone else to play with them.
Copyright laws need to be adjusted. It’s time to bring copyright laws back to what our Founding Fathers intended them to be. The reinstatement of a 28 year copyright law is a fair enough time for the artist to capitalize on the commercial success of their creative works. Nate Anderson of Ars Technica agrees that “an optimal copyright term of 14 years, which is designed to encourage the best balance of incentive to create new work and social welfare that comes from having work enter the public domain (where it often inspires new creative acts).”
In defense of film companies who benefit from the extension of these copyrights laws, those who wish to use these classical characters (like Mickey Mouse) in their own filmography and creative projects aren’t necessarily noble crusaders trying to bring something new to the genre. One could argue that instead they are lazy, unoriginal artists trying to exploit the existing popularity and brand recognition of these existing characters instead of bringing something genuinely unique to the genre.
Copyright law is a tedious topic but it affects people in their daily lives. As individual members of society and users of the internet, we have to be careful what music we use and google images we grab or clips we borrow because most everything is copyrighted. As a result, copyright law affects us all.
Creative artists should have ownership over their own works. This is an indisputable fact. The fruits of their labors are theirs and theirs alone. But copyright laws are not being executed in this way. Instead, copyright laws have been exploited so that their children and their companies are maintaining unnecessary jurisdiction over those properties. These works should be celebrated by other artists who, almost like philosophers or inventors, want to build on the work of the greats that have come before them.