The Mickey Mouse Copyright Protection Act of 2007?

Mark Helprin’s recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times advocated a further (if not perpetual) extension of the current term of US copyright protection which was already extended several years ago courtesy of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998. A number of people weighed in with compelling arguments on the Times’ letters page. While I am not sure if he mailed it, my colleague, Jerry Sussman wrote in as well which is provided – with his permission – in full below:

Letters to the Editor
The New York Times
229 W. 43rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10036


To the Editor:

The May 20, 2007 Op-Ed Section carries an essay by Mark Helprin urging that Congress extend the term of copyrights to perperuity or close to it.

Copyrights now have a term equal to the life of the author plus 70 years. Authors include not just the individual authors and song writers mentioned by Mr. Helprin, but also the corporations that hire the individuals to create most of the computer programs, motion pictures and television programs that we all use and watch. It is Microsoft, not any individual, that owns the copyright to the nearly ubiquitous WINDOWS operating system and the WORD computer program. Likewise, it is Time-Warner or one of its corporate affiliates that owns the copyright to “THE SOPRANOS”, and Sony or one of its corporate affiliates that owns the copyright to the movie “SPIDER MAN” and its sequels. Because corporations have an indefinite life, copyrights owned by corporations last for 95 years from the date of publication.

If we followed Mr. Helprin’s suggestion to its logical conclusion, the works of William Shakespeare would still be protected by copyright today some 400 years after his death. This would have prevented Leonard Bernstein and his co-creators from producing “West Side Story” (which was based on Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”) without the permission of Shakespeare’s heirs. Imagine the problems in locating all of them and securing their permission. At least it would be good for lawyers like me. The examples of literary and artistic works based on or derived from earlier works are too numerous to begin to list, but without these examples, our artistic lives would be immeasurably poorer.

The fact is that the term of copyrights in the United States is now among the longest in the world.

Very truly yours,

Jerome J. Sussman

The Times also recently published a good piece on Lawrence Lessig, the polar opposite of Helprin, describing Lessig as the “the standard-bearer for those who see copyright law as too protective of original creators and too stifling of the artists who follow them. That position has made him the darling of those who want a relatively unfettered Internet, whether it be music sharers or online poem reprinters.”