Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act

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In the United States, Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 retroactively extended the duration of copyright from the life of author plus fifty years to the life of the author plus seventy years, in the case of individual works, and from seventy-five years to ninety-five years in the case of works of corporate authorship and works first published before January 1, 1978.

Under the Berne Convention states are required to provide copyright protection for a term of the life of the author plus fifty years. However, the convention permitted parties to provide for a longer term of protection, and in 1996, the European Union provided protection for a term of the author's life plus seventy years. The United States, however, only provided for the minimum required by the convention.

As a result, many literary works, films and fictional characters, which were quite profitable for the copyright owners, were threatened with soon passing into the public domain. This included several characters owned by the Walt Disney Company; without the act, Mickey Mouse would have entered the public domain between 2000 and 2004 when early short films such as "Steamboat Willie" and "Plane Crazy" were due to reach the end of the 75-year copyright term. Copyright owners sucessfully lobbied Congress for an extension of copyright, to provide for the same term of protection as exists in Europe. Hence both houses of the United States Congress passed the act as Public Law 105-298 with a voice vote, making it impossible to determine who voted for the act and who voted against it, and passed it during both the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Kosovo War, ensuring that the act would get little media coverage.

As a consequence of the act, no copyrighted works will enter into public domain in the United States until January 1, 2019, when all works created in 1923 will enter into public domain.

Proponents of the Bono Act consider it necessary given that life expectancy has risen dramatically since Congress passed the original Copyright Act of 1790, that a difference in copyright terms between the United States and Europe would negatively affect the international operations of the entertainment industry, and that some works would be created under perpetual copyright that would never be created under time-limited copyright.

Opponents of the Bono Act consider the legislation to be little more than corporate welfare and are currently (as of mid-2001) attempting to challenge its constitutionality, claiming that such an act is not "necessary and proper" to achieve the purpose of "promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts". They see two successive extensions of approximately 20 years each (the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Bono Act) as the beginning of a "slippery slope" toward a perpetual copyright term that violates the "for limited times" language of the United States Constitution, Article I, section 8, clause 8. They question the proponents' life expectancy argument, pointing out that the copyright term under the 1790 act lasted only twenty-eight years, that life expectancies have not risen threefold since 1790, and that even though terms of patents have not been extended in parallel, patents adequately reward investment in the field with only a twenty-year term. They also question the proponents' "works would not be created" argument by pointing out proponents' hidden assumption that the goal is to create all works, whereas the authors of the United States Constitution considered the goal "to promote the progress of science and useful arts." In fact, some works created under time-limited copyright would not be created under perpetual copyright because the creator of a slightly derivative work does not have the money to purchase a license from the creator of the original work.

Publishers and librarians, among others, have brought a case originally known as Eldred v. Reno to obtain an injunction on enforcement of the act. Other groups such as the Barely Legal Project practice civil disobedience by violating the act in public. However, these challenges have so far met with little success.

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