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Eternal copyright to be challenged in high court

Mickey Mouse meets the Supremes

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The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft this week, in which the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 will be challenged.

The legislation, which extended existing copyrights an additional twenty years, was originally conceived by talent powerhouse Sonny Bono and is coplloquially known by his name, and also as the "Mickey Mouse Act" because of the intense lobbying pressure Disney brought to bear on Congress in getting it passed just as old Mick was set to pass into the public domain.

The good fight is spearheaded by Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, who believes that the US Constitution meant to ensure that copyrights would expire in a reasonable time as much as it meant to protect them. The Evil Empire contends that Congress, which it can buy, not the Constitution, which is not for sale (yet), is entitled to the last word in the matter. And unless my copy of the Constitution contains a typo, it says quite clearly that, "Congress shall have the power to ... promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

One would think that if the framers had meant to quantify 'limited times' they'd have done it. It certainly looks as if Congress gets to make the call on how long is too long. And for the life of me I can't find a single word in the Constitution extolling the obvious social benefits of swift copyright and patent expiration. An 'original intent' argument is going to have to be an absolute masterpiece to succeed under the circumstances.

However, it's possible that an argument showing excessive copyright extension as a burden on free speech might cut some ice more easily with the current bench, which has delighted in frittering away individual rights with that one exception.

The court will entertain arguments Wednesday and issue its ruling at some point within the next eight months. ®

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