By Isaac Butler
I'm guessing 0% of the readers of Parabasis failed to notice that Disney has aquired Lucasfilm to the tune of $4.05 billion dollars (or roughly 63 Spider-Men). Much attention has focused on the Mouse's decision to churn out a new Star Wars movie every few years, with people worried, after the prequels, about what little legacy of quality that franchise has left.
I'm a little less concerned about that. What I am concerned about is Disney's ongoing intellectual property aquisition strategy.
Disney owns Pixar, Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm. This means they own Buzz and Woody, Indiana Jones, Luke and Leah and Han (who shot first, damnit). They own Captain America and the X-Men. They own Luke Cage and Iron Fist. They own Daredevil. They own Jareth. They own the gang from American Graffiti. They own the Brownies from Willow. On top of this, they continue to own the properties they've created as well. Mickey and Minnie. Belle. Ariel. Ursula.
Disney is also one of the prime movers behnd the Copyright Extension Act of 1998. In fact, their lobbying efforts in favor of the bill were so intense that it got nicknamed The Mickey Mouse Protection Act (poor Mickey was about to enter the public domain and who knows what the grubby plebes would've done with him!). As I wrote about over at Howlround, the copyright term extension act insures that no works have entered the public domain since, and none will enter until 2019.
Now, 2019 is only seven years away (I hear you exclaim). I don't want to be hysterical here, but I seriously, seriously doubt Disney is going to roll over and let Mickey enter the public domain that easily. I would guess that, in the lead-up to 2019, we'll be looking at a serious effort on the part of Disney and other Intellectual Property-based companies to continue extending the copyright term another twenty years or so.
What this means is that Disney is hoarding up the closest thing 20th and 21st century culture has to folk tales and mythology, and locking them up in a safe where we can't touch it without getting sued. As artists, we should be deeply troubled by this. And for those of you who think that things like Fair Use and Parody exemptions will protect, you're wrong. It's not like a lawsuit magically goes away because it's spurious. It costs money to fight these things, as David Adjmi recently found out . As This American Life discussed in the software industry, overly expansive IP laws combined with powerful, litigious companies are a toxic combination that squeezes out creativity and limits the possibility of what we can achieve.
This is what you should be worried about. Not what Star Wars VII might look like, but what our work begins to look like when our shared mythology is off limits.
Here's the thing though: there is no way to solve this problem without giving something up. And that something is the amount of time our own copyright over our own work lasts. Fair Use is an ad hoc system cobbled together by appellate judges. It's chaotic and contradictory and not a lasting solution. Parody exemptions don't work when you have to bankrupt yourself to prove them. The only way this problem gets better is if we creative folk fight to lower the amount of time that copyright lasts to something more reasonable and more fitting with copyright's original stated mission of encouragin creativity and the useful arts.
That means that we as writers need to get used to our work going into the public domain sooner. Possibly within our lifetimes. I know that it feels like we're giving something up. But for most of us, we aren't. The current copyright system only really protects the very wealthy and the very well-known, those who can still make money off their work decades after it was made. The number of Van Goghs in this world are few and far between. Just like with our tax system, I don't think we want to be supporting a regime that benefits the few and powerful simply because we hope to one day be one of them.