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Supreme Court to Take Up the Issue of Length of Copyright Protection

Yesterday, a number of news outlets reported that the Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. This law went into effect in 1998, and it is the latest in a series of laws that has gradually extended the period for which an author or a rights holder can maintain control over a copyrighted piece of intellectual property.

Dan Gillmor wrote an excellent article for today's San Jose Mercury-News that explains why this issue matters to all Americans. In the article, Gillmor points out that media conglomerates are the prime beneficiaries of this law. The impetus for it was the impending loss of copyright protection for a number of cartoon characters, including Mickey Mouse.

Gillmor goes on to point out that the Sonny Bono copyright law and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act have been abused by media companies to stifle technological innovation, prop up markets for otherwise obsolete products, and dramatically constrain the Fair Use doctrine. He cites a number of obvious incongruities, including: "anyone using the image of Santa Claus as a fat man with a beard and red suit would have had to pay royalties during much of the last century if the Bono law had been in effect when a cartoonist dreamed up that caricature in the 1880s." Gillmor says this is an absurdity and we agree with him.

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