(Mat 21, 2017) According to some experts copyrights last far too long because The Walt Disney Company regularly convinces the federal government to extend them in order to protect the Mickey Mouse trademark.
This is a problem for students of the Civil War Era because the works of many historians from 1923 to about 1970 are out of print and unavailable in the public domain. Moreover, historians of that period often came to different—sometimes contrary—conclusions to those of more recent authors. One example is the changing perspective on the Republican Party’s motivation for advocating black suffrage in the South after the Civil War. Earlier historians generally admit that the Party was probably as much concerned about using the voting block to retain power in Washington as it was in the intrinsic merit of racial equality. In contrast, modern historians generally minimize, or ignore, the political power factor.
Since many out-of-print books published between 1923 and 1970 remain under copyright there is only a dwindling supply of used copies available. Some are in such short supply that the prices are painfully high. A good example is Philip S. Foner’s Business & Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict. It was originally published in 1941 and the copyright was renewed in 1968. Since the renewal means it will not be out of copyright until 2036, the best price for a used copy at Amazon is $160.
There are two reasons that Philip Foner’s book should interest students of the Civil War.
First, he was Eric Foner’s uncle. Eric is one of the leading of present day Civil War Era historians who predominantly emphasize the centrality of slavery as the cause of the war. He often cites the protection of slavery in the “Declaration of Causes” for secession provided by five of the deep South states to make his point. Yet any declaration of secession causes fails to explain why the Northern states simply did not let the Southern states depart peaceably. If the Northern states wanted to be divorced from slavery, why not just let the South leave? Eric even admits that he does not know how to answer that question and further claims that no historian has been able to answer it.
The second reason uncle Philip’s book should interest us is its focus on the very question that his more famous nephew mostly ignores. In short, it argues that New York merchants had greater reason to be concerned about the adverse economic impact of Southern secession than with freedom for the slaves. Even after South Carolina seceded they urged Lincoln to compromise the Party plank intended to prevent the spread of slavery into the the territorial regions of the country, but Lincoln refused. In short, the chief reason the New York merchants chose to support the war was to avoid the economic consequences of Southern secession.
The original 1790 Copyright Act provided for a 14-year term which was renewable for one additional 14-year term. When Mickey Mouse came on the scene in 1928 copyright duration was 28 years with a 28 year renewal, which would have required his copyright to expire in 1984. Thus, in 1976 Congress overhauled the copyright act providing Mickey seventy-five years of protection until 2003. As the 2003 deadline approached a new copyright act was adopted in 1998 that gives Mickey protection until 2023.
The chart above from Art Law Journal indicates a correlation between Mickey’s copyright deadlines and periodic revisions to extend the deadlines for all copyrights.