Herewith another recent addition to my draft book, Intellectual Privilege: A Libertarian View of Copyright, (inspired, in part, by Berin Szoka’s recent claim, “I just don’t know what the right balance [for copyright] is! I’m glad there are others patient enough to try to figure it out. This is why we have economists and… yes, even lawyers!”):
As an illustration of the public choice pressures that drive copyright policy, consider the fate of the copyright in Steamboat Willie, a 1928 cartoon that the Walt Disney Company cites as establishing its copyright claim in Mickey Mouse. Scholars have made a surprisingly strong case that, because the requisite formalities of the 1909 Copyright Act were not satisfied, Steamboat Willie has fallen into the public domain. The Walt Disney Company has responded to such claims by threatening to bring suit for “slander of title,” demonstrating how seriously it takes its copyright in Steamboat Willie. Let us take that copyright seriously, too, then, so that we might better understand the public choice effects of the Walt Disney Company’s interests.
The above figure illustrates how the duration of the copyright that the company claims in Steamboat Willie—marked by the solid grey line—has twice approached expiration—a limit marked by the dashed grey line. In both instances, federal lawmakers amended the Copyright Act to extend copyright’s duration, both for copyrighted works generally and works, such as Steamboat Willie, that predated the amendments. The line marking the copyright term in Steamboat Willie jogs upward both on the effective date of the 1976 Act (January 1, 1978) and again on the effective date of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (October 27, 1998). (Steamboat Willie did not receive the maximum possible copyright duration under either extension due to complications arising from the work’s status as a work in its second term under the 1909 Copyright Act.) No one can, of course, say with certainty whether or to what degree lobbying by the Walt Disney Company drove those copyright term extensions, which fortuitously or not saved the (supposed) copyright in Steamboat Willie from falling into the public domain. It does not take a great deal of skepticism, however, to predict that federal lawmakers will extend copyrights again before 2023, at which time Steamboat Willie will once more risk sailing beyond the limits of copyright’s duration.
Given the rough-and-tumble of real world lawmaking, does the rhetoric of “delicate balancing” merit any place in copyright jurisprudence? The Copyright Act does reflect compromises struck between the various parties that lobby congress and the administration for changes to federal law. A truce among special interests does not and cannot delicately balance all the interests affected by copyright law, however. Not even poetry can license the metaphor, which aggravates copyright’s public choice affliction by endowing the legislative process with more legitimacy than it deserves. To claim that copyright policy strikes a “delicate balance” commits not only legal fiction; it aids and abets a statutory tragedy.