Copyrights and Wrongs

Despite its grumblings (and litigation) to the contrary, the entertainment industry benefits from copyright expiration: Take, for instance, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

It’s been a good year for comic-book fans, cinematically speaking. Such luminaries as Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, and the Hulk have all rampaged across the silver screen in the last 12 months, and today we get one more: the highly anticipated LXG.

Here’s a primer for those of you who haven’t TiVo’ed every episode of the Superfriends. LXG is based on a comic book entitled The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which hit the shelves a few years back and chronicled the adventures of a late-19th-century crime-fighting team composed of the most remarkable literary characters of the Victorian Age: Allan Quartermain, hero of King Solomon’s Mines, H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and the legendary Captain Nemo. Together they travel the world, interact with the fictitious creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, and even come to loggerheads with the Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. It was a series that caused a stir amongst the comicati because it had it all: intelligent writing, literary allusion, and guys with superpowers punching the crap out of each other.

The book’s author, Alan Moore, was able to create this literary-parallel universe because the protagonists are all within the public domain, and so are not owned by any one person or corporation, and thus available for anyone to use without having to pay royalties. This is why you can watch low-budget Sherlock Holmes mysteries on PBS, buy a copy of Alice in Wonderland for under five bucks, and see Shakespeare in the park for free.

But here’s what you won’t be seeing anytime soon: my masterpiece, The League of Extraordinary Rodents. It was going to star Stuart Little, Algernon, Batman, and Mickey Mouse as the greatest mammalian crime-fighting team the animal kingdom had ever seen, and we’d follow them on thrilling adventures as they fought such evildoers as the, uh, the Federation of Felines and, um, Sergeant GlueTrap and, uhhhh…Well, to be honest I never really fleshed out the details. But trust me: It would have been awesome.

And it would have been legal, too—if the U.S. still adhered to its original copyright laws, which set ownership limits at 28 years. Unfortunately, all four of my Leaguers are contraband under current copyright law. Congress, you see, has extended copyrights no less than 11 times over the past 50 years, most recently in 1998 when it enacted the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act (SBCEA) and tacked a whopping two decades onto the existing limits. Now copyrights held by corporations last for nearly a century; those owned by individuals persist for 70 years after the creator’s death.

Curiously, many of those who fought the hardest for the SBCEA were those who had benefited the most from the public domain. Disney, afraid of losing exclusive control of Mickey Mouse (who first appeared in 1928 and would have gone public this year), lobbied vigorously for the 20-year extension, despite having made billions off such classic characters and stories as Cinderella and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also in favor of the extension was the Motion Picture Association of America, the same institution that oversaw the production of the aforementioned LXG, a film that adds Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray to the comic book’s original roster.

Although the SBCEA was passed by Congress overwhelmingly, it was not without its opponents. Foremost amongst them was Eric Eldred, a bookmonger from Massachusetts who wished to continue providing free texts to his website’s visitors. He eventually brought suit against the federal government, and the Supreme Court heard his case, Eldred v. Ashcroft (née Eldred v. Reno), earlier this year.

Eldred and other opponents of the SBCEA (including The American Library Association and Dover Books) pointed out that the Constitution allows Congress to set copyright terms ‘for limited times’ only, and that by extending the term every time Mickey Mouse is imperiled, Congress is in effect creating a ‘perpetual copyright,’ clearly counter to what the Constitution’s framers desired. Proponents of the extension—a consortium largely comprised of the same media and entertainment giants who had pushed for the SBCEA in the first place—argued that a lack of sufficient copyright protection gives artists no incentive to create.

Disney’s arguments notwithstanding, I find it hard to believe that Steven Spielberg or John Grisham would change vocations knowing that their great-great-great-grandchildren would miss out on some royalty checks, or that J.K. Rowling would scrap her series without reassurance that Harry Potter wouldn’t guest star in a comic book within 69 years of her own dying day.

And at some point lengthening the copyright term surely stifles more creativity than it fosters. Just think: If just anyone could make a James Bond movie, MGM might invent some new heroes instead of churning out 007 flicks every 16 months; if Disney’s canon was turned into open game it might come up with some new material instead of plundering its own theme parks for movie ideas, in the case of the current Pirates of the Caribbean Johnny Depp vehicle.

Contrawise, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—one of the most inventive comic series in recent memory—was made possible by the original copyright laws that recognized the public domain as a boon to artists, not a burden. Alas, the 2003 Supreme Court didn’t see it this way—it upheld the SBCEA, thereby keeping Mickey Mouse in his cage for another generation.

So while you’ll still be able to catch LXG this weekend, don’t bother looking for The League of Extraordinary Rodents in your local comic-book store—it looks like it will remain off the shelves until 2018 at the very least.

in the wake of the Eldred v. Ashcroft ruling, the plaintiffs have launched a new initiative, the Eric Eldred Act; details can be found at eldred.cc