Forever, 20 Years at a Time


Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, calls the Supreme Court's decision upholding Congress's retroactive extension of copyright terms "a victory…for consumers everywhere." Why? Because "copyright, whose aim it is to provide incentive for the creation and preservation of creative works, is in the public interest."

Even granting that this is generally true, it's hard to see how adding 20 years to the copyright term of a Mickey Mouse cartoon provides an incentive for anything other than holding onto your Disney stock. If anything, it discourages creativity by preventing people from using Mickey in new and interesting ways.

That was one of the the points raised by the plaintiffs in this case, who argued that copyright extensions for existing works do not "promote the progress of science and useful arts"–the reason given by the Framers for authorizing Congress to issue copyrights. They also argued that repeated copyright extensions violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitutional sitipulation that copyrights be for "limited times."

The Supreme Court didn't buy the constitutional arguments, although the justices conceded that copyright law may be out of whack as a matter of policy. It's easy to understand why Valenti is happy about the decision, but he should have the decency not to pretend that it has anything to do with "the public interest" or "consumers everywhere."