The Bitter Legacy of Mickey Mouse

Developments of enormous consequence sometimes follow the most mundane of motives.

During the mid-1990s, the giant Disney Corporation became concerned that its 1928 copyright on Mickey Mouse was close to expiration.  Deploying heavy lobbying efforts, it persuaded Congress to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign what was officially entitled the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, but more informally known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”  The result was to extend Mickey’s copyright for another twenty years, and perhaps indefinitely if future corporate lobbying efforts bore similar fruit.

Now I have no particular burning desire to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons without paying for them, and I suspect that those around the world who feel otherwise simply ignore such legal restrictions, just as they watch pirated blockbuster movies only weeks after they are released into the theaters.  So if the Disney executives had merely wanted to protect their rights to old Walt’s lucrative rodent, I wouldn’t have cared in the least.  But since paying Congresspersons to enact such narrowly tailored legislation might have appeared unseemly, they decided to extend all other existing copyrights as well, including the vast number of written works possessing no financial but much intellectual value.

As a direct consequence, the continuous yearly expiration of old copyrights came to a screeching halt at the year 1922, and has moved no further in the last fifteen years. Everything published in America prior to 1923 may be copied, read, and made available without restriction, but for most other works, their precise legal status remains unclear, given the difficulty and inconvenience of determining individual copyright-renewal filings or tracing the legal chain of ownership across sixty or seventy years.  Hence so many of the legal battles subsequently undertaken by Google and various other entities over the legitimate interpretation of “Fair Use” doctrine and the question of what can or can’t be made available on the Internet.

Absent Disney’s unfortunate intervention, hundreds of millions of pages of material, representing the primary source history for American thought during the 1920s and 1930s would have by now reached our fingertips, rather than only be available on the musty shelves of major libraries.  The books and articles in question have negligible financial value to anyone, but carried along in Mickey’s wake, they remain under permanent legal lock and key.

While I am unable to single-handedly overcome the legal barriers of this unfortunate situation, I am doing the best that I can, and earlier this week released a major new extension of my content-archiving system.  My coverage has now includes the near-complete archives of numerous very prominent American publications, including The NationThe New RepublicThe Atlantic, HarpersNational ReviewCommentaryDissentPartisan ReviewThe Public InterestForeign AffairsThe American Historical ReviewThe American Political Science Review, and about ninety others, newly added to the system.

All these articles published prior to 1923 are in fully-readable form, while later issues and articles for these extent periodicals are provided in “catalogue” form, providing title, subtitle, author, and date, but without access to the text itself.  Although this situation is clearly not ideal, at least it allows scholars or other researchers to browse the contents of all those periodical issues, as well as to trace the ideological trajectory of notable thinkers, many of whom began their careers writing for The Communist or The Nation, and ended as valued contributors to National Review or Commentary.  Certainly many people are aware that the older neoconservatives might have had this sort of paper trail, but how many know that the first nationally-published piece by Pat Buchanan ran in The Nation, or that Princeton’s Edward Witten, one of our greatest theoretical physicists, originally dreamed of a career as a political journalist writing for The New Republic before he switched to particles and field theory?

Given the very broad range of publications now covered—about 1.3 million articles in 65,000 issues from more than 200 periodicals—reasonably comprehensive bibliographies of the nearly half-million distinct authors are now at one’s fingertips.

It is certainly my hope that as time goes by and interest grows, some of these publications may consent to full or partial release of their readable archives, together with the many dozens that have already done so.  There certainly exists a strange state of affairs when the complete archives of a once-prominent but now defunct periodical such as Encounter or The Century is instantly available, but the same is not true for their surviving peers. Perhaps having those tables of contents a tempting click away may eventually help to change this.


On an entirely different matter, I was very pleased to see that anthropologist Peter Frost wrote a third consecutive column on my Chinese evolution article, once again occasioning some extended debate. According to Google, readers have now devoted well over 15,000 hours to reading my original article, and I’ve certainly engaged in lengthy private discussions on some of the issues, notably the crucial question of whether there exists any significant case for substantial differences in academic performance between Chinese and Japanese.



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