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Congress has passed plenty of Mickey Mouse legislation over the years. But a few years ago, lawmakers sneaked through the actual article: a Mickey Mouse bailout bill. Now the U.S. Supreme Court can redress Congress’s ill-considered public ripoff.

Formally known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, the legislation addressed all “original works of authorship” (books, articles, songs, and graphic art) copyrighted since 1923, extending their copyright protection by at least 20 years. Works copyrighted in 1978 or later retain copyright protection for the duration of the author’s or artist’s life and the next 70 years (up from 50 years); those copyrighted before 1978 are protected for 95 years, regardless of how they were produced or when the author or artist died.

Why, in 1998, did Congress feel the urgent need to extend copyright? The legislators certainly weren’t being lobbied by the Dead Poets Society. The plain fact is that this was a corporate giveaway. The beneficiaries are big publishing conglomerates including AOL Time Warner and movie studios such as Disney. The first Mickey Mouse character, copyrighted in 1928, was set to revert to the public domain in 2003. Now thanks to Congress, Disney can keep Mickey until 2023. Considering that the cash cow mouse helps earn the company billions of dollars a year in products and theme park revenues, the giveaway was lavish indeed.

What’s important to intellectual-property owners is simple: duration, duration, duration. That’s why, when the expiration of a drug company’s patent nears, we see the company scrambling shamelessly to propose dubious new, patentable uses for its lucrative products. A pharmaceutical maker will do anything to lengthen its exclusive hold on its drugs. In the realm of copyright, we see intellectual-property titleholders trying to earn royalties for longer periods.

This fall, the legal challenge to the Sonny Bono Act reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, addresses a pressing intellectual-property issue-namely, how committed are we to the notion of the public domain? The case involves the right of Eric Eldred, a computer analyst and Internet hobbyist, to post pieces of literature-including The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-whose copyrights would have expired were it not for Congress’s intervention. Many of the works Eldred wants to make freely available at www.eldritchpress.org, his noncommercial Web site, are now out of print. Examples include Horses and Men, a collection of stories by Sherwood Anderson, and a rare edition of Robert Frost’s New Hampshire poetry collection; both were published in 1923. The Sonny Bono law denies the public the chance to view these works on free sites; any such use or other copying would require paying royalties to the authors’ estates.

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