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SHOULD MICKEY BE FREE AT AGE 75? DISNEY'S 95-YEAR 'CUSTODY' DISPUTED.

Byline: Bill Hillburg Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Mickey Mouse and thousands of other Hollywood creations were in the spotlight Wednesday as the Supreme Court heard a challenge to a law passed by Congress extending copyrights for 20 years.

If the law were overturned, only the original Mickey Mouse, as portrayed in the Disney film ``Steamboat Willie,'' would enter the public domain on Jan. 1, 2004 - more than 75 years after his 1928 debut. More modern Mickeys are protected by other Disney copyrights and trademarks.

The 1998 law keeps the original Mickey in Disney's domain until Jan.1, 2024.

Congress abused its constitutional power to set limits when it passed the 1998 law that extended copyrights already on the books, as well as future copyrights, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig told the court.

``Unless this court draws a line about this extension, there will be no limit,'' said Lessig, who argued the case for a coalition of free-speech advocates.

Copyrights are now retained by creators for their lifetime plus 70 years. Corporations can hold rights for 95 years.

``These decisions are quintessential legislative judgments,'' said U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who defended Congress' right to adjust copyright laws.

Olson also noted that the 1998 law was passed, in part, to keep U.S. copyrights on a par with those in Europe, which had already been extended by 20 years.

``Why have there been no challenges until now?'' asked Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who noted that Congress also extended copyrights in 1831, 1909 and 1976. He and other justices expressed concern that overthrowing the 1998 law could also void those previous moves, resulting in copyright chaos.

Lessig said the challenge is necessary now because the Internet - something the writers of the Constitution could not have foreseen - had greatly increased the opportunity for free access to information.

Rehnquist countered that the Constitution's framers also could not have foreseen steamboats or railroads, but nevertheless created basic rules for commerce.

``I can find a lot of fault with what Congress did,'' said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. ``This flies directly in the face of what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. But is it unconstitutional?''

Critics of the 1998 act branded it the ``Mickey Mouse Copyright Law'' and contended it was passed because of heavy lobbying by Disney and other large entertainment companies.

The extension also applies to an undetermined number of other creative works.

``The word 'limit' has no meaning. It's a joke,'' Lessig said after the hearing. ``This law is stopping people from taking parts of their culture and sharing them with others.''

Lessig said he and other opponents of the 1998 law have no opinion on what should be the proper length of a copyright, but oppose retroactively extending copyrights for works whose creators had no expectation of the additional protection. He argued that changes in the copyright law should cover only works created after a new law is passed.

``The 20-year extension is reasonable and was fully considered by Congress,'' Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, said after the hearing. Her late husband, Sonny, a congressman and entertainer, helped to develop the 1998 law.

``We held hearings and heard from all interested parties, including some of the same people who opposed us in court today,'' Bono said. ``Sonny was an artist, and he knew what copyright protections meant to the creative community. I was so proud when they put his name on the bill because he was the one who really championed this law.''

The court is expected to issue its decision in early spring.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 10, 2002
Words:595
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