Free the Mouse!
Lawrence Lessig on Disney, copyrights, and the creative commons
Notable author and Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig came to SXSW Interactive with a story to tell.
It was a story of a giant of U.S. industry, clinging to outdated business practices, that found itself on the verge of obsolescence. Faced with this threat, the industrial giant used its political clout to protect its market share through federal regulation.
No, it's not big steel. It's Disney. As sayeth the Constitution, no copyright lasts forever, and Mickey Mouse himself was due to enter the public domain in 2003. But in 1995, the forward-thinking Eisner & Co. bought him an extra 20 years of indentured servitude through Congress' Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act. "In the past 40 years, Congress has extended the terms of copyright 11 times," recounted Lessig in his keynote address at the Interactive Conference Saturday. "Every time the Disney copyright is about to expire, the terms of copyright protection get extended."
Repeatedly extending terms of copyright protection, said Lessig, we are denying ourselves this important resource, a "creative commons."
Lessig is currently working on a case that seeks to overturn the so-called Mickey Mouse Protection Act. He sees it as legislation that protects the few (publishers) at the expense of the many (creators and consumers). As a free society, argues Lessig, we have the right to a rich public domain of software, music, and film, enabling "a creative process in which artists rip, mix, and burn the culture of the past," a culture which could be archived on the Web for all to use. Instead, our cultural heritage remains under lock and key. By repeatedly extending terms of copyright protection, says Lessig, we are denying ourselves this important resource, a "creative commons."
For now, though, the commons are fenced off, and Mickey's on the inside. And here we sit, enough bandwidth to drive a Mack truck through, and there's nothing to watch. If only we could get a free download of "Steamboat Willie."