Happy New Year! I hope all my readers had a great holiday season. Today is a special day for public domain content. Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie enters the public domain today (January 1, 2024). I wanted to take this moment to discuss the history of copyright and why I think it lasts too long.
I'd also like to preface this post by saying that I am not a lawyer. I am not giving legal advice. I am simply sharing my opinion on the matter.
The first federal copyright law in the United States was the Copyright Act of 1790. This gave authors the
sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending the copies of their
maps, charts, and books for a term of 14 years, with the right to renew for one additional 14-year term should the copyright holder still be alive.
It was extended multiple times over the years. The most recent extension was the Copyright Term Extension Act passed in 1998. This extends the corporate authorship to 95 years from publication or 120 years after creation, whichever end is earlier. This bill had extremely strong lobbyist support from major media companies.
I think that 95 years is too long for a work to be protected by copyright. It is important to remember that the goal of copyright is to ensure that authors are incentivize to create, and are able to effectively monetize their work.
Let's take the iconic Steamboat Willie which just entered the public domain today (January 1, 2024). At the time of publication the Copyright Act of 1909 was the latest copyright law to be passed. This gave a maximum copyright duration of 56 years. So clearly the Walt Disney Studio determined that based on a copyright duration of 56 years that it was a worthwhile business venture to create Steamboat Willie. They had incentive to create, and believed they would be able to effectively monetize their work.
Extending the copyright beyond what is necessary to ensure those two principles creates harm to our society by restricting the ability to create newer works based on older works. It limits creativity.
Additionally, preservation of older works becomes much more difficult and more centralized. Organizations like archive.org are doing great work to preserve content for future generations. A lot of what they do wouldn't be possible without works entering the public domain.
Of the many reasons to support copyright expiring, competition is another important one. Capitalism works best when there is strong competition. While it's important to let companies and individuals profit from their work, that needs to be balanced with the need for competition. Restricting the use of older works for too long stifles that competition.
Steamboat Willie was released on November 18, 1928. Which means since Congress did not extend the copyright after the Copyright Term Extension Act that today (January 1, 2024) it enters the public domain.
To celebrate I have embedded the full (now copyright free) video below. With the iconic clip of Mickey Mouse whistling from 0:32 to 0:44.
This command looked like this:
ffmpeg -i Steamboat\ Willie\ \(original\).mp4 -c:v h264 -c:a aac -map 0 -f ssegment -segment_list hls/Steamboat\ Willie.m3u8 -segment_time 10 hls/Steamboat\ Willie-%03d.ts
Maybe eventually I'll switch to a different hosting provider that allows larger files. But for now this works.