It was a Mickey Mouse issue and for the Walt Disney Co., that is no laughing matter.
Faced with the loss of exclusive rights to its beloved cartoon character in 2003, Disney helped lead a successful effort to obtain an extra 20 years of copyright protection.
Both houses of Congress have passed the legislation, which extends all U.S. copyrights for 20 years, and it awaits President Clinton's signature. For corporations like Disney, the changes mean exclusive rights for 95 years, instead of 75.
For individuals, such as authors and songwriters, it extends copyrights validity for 70 years after death rather than 50 years.
Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's courts and intellectual property subcommittee, said the extensions give American inventors and creators the same copyright protection as those in Europe. The European Union extended its copyrights by 20 years in 1995.
"It gives our intellectual property a fair shake in the rest of the world," Coble said. "I view this as a no-lose for America."
Copyrights allow the owner to control the reproduction of distribution of the work. A trademark, which does not have any expiration date, is a unique label that identifies a specific product or brand name.
The battle for copyright protection pitted well-known corporations like Disney and Time Warner against librarians and consumer organizations.
"Many major industries said, 'If we don't lengthen the term of copyright, we won't make as much money' " said Adam Eisgrau of the American Libraries Association. "Making money isn't what copyright law is about. The purpose of the law is to provide a sufficient incentive to authors and inventors to create information, not because there is a constitutional entitlement to compensation but because the information created was regarded as a public good."
For Disney, whose copyrights on three other popular cartoon characters, Pluto, Goofy and Donald Duck, also expire by 2009, the copyright extension bill was a top priority. The company's lobbyists led the fight. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, also used his decades-long relationships with key lawmakers to push the bill along.
Disney Chairman Michael Eisner flew to Washington and discussed the issue with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., in June.
"We strongly indicated our support for the measure," Disney spokesman Ken Green said.
The company also gave campaign contributions. Of the 13 initial sponsors of the House bill, 10 received contributions from Disney's political action committee. The largest donations, $5,000 apiece, went to Coble and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee.
On the Senate side, eight of the 12 sponsors received Disney contributions. Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the bill's chief sponsor, rceived $6,000, second only to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who represents Disney's home state of California and is up for re-election this fall. Disney gave $1,000 to Lott on June 16, the same day he signed up as a bill co-sponsor.
Coble also was the biggest House recipient of Time Warner PAC money, taking in $7,000. Hatch and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a co-sponsor of the bill, each received $10,000 from Time Warner.
To counteract the entertainment industry, the library group asked its 54,000 individual members to call their local lawmakers and urge them to oppose the extension.
In the end, the libraries and consumer groups did win some concessions. During the final 20 years of copyright protection, libraries, schools and archives were given some broader use of copyright materials without having to get the permission of the copyright owner.
Written By Jonathan D. Salant