Some cynics claim Congress passes copyright laws mostly to protect Mickey Mouse. While that might be overstating things, there’s no question the trend over the past thirty years has been to expand the rights of copyright owners, Disney included.

A recent article in Wired talks about a new legal challenge (Kahle v. Ashcroft) to expansive copyright laws. While I don’t think the challenge will succeed, it does raise interesting questions prompted by changes in the way information is now distributed.

The argument — and I think there’s some merit to it — is that it’s now virtually impossible for copyrighted works to return to the public domain. Unlike in the past (i.e., prior to 1976) copyright owners don’t have to take action to obtain and renew copyrights on their works. Thus, long forgotten works sitting in libraries around the country might well remain protected under copyright laws. What then happens when someone republishes these works on the Internet, say? Checking records in the Copyright Office won’t help because renewals occur automatically — nothing needs to be filed with the Office. Thus, these works remain in a sort of legal limbo wherein there is no practical way to find out if they are in the public domain or remain the property of someone else. (You will, of course find out after you are sued, but some folks prefer to avoid this method of notice for some strange reason.)

Given that copyrights, like patents, are supposed to confer some public benefit through ultimate entry of the protected matter into the public domain, there is legitimacy to the argument that copyright owners aren’t holding up their end of the deal if they, in essence, keep extending their rights in perpetuity. This argument, however, was shot down by the Supreme Court not long ago in Eldred v. Ashcroft. It’s unlikely the courts will see thing differently so soon after that decision.

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Photo of Philip P. Mann Philip P. Mann

Philip P. Mann is a trial lawyer with over twenty years experience litigating patent, trademark, trade secret, and other intellectual property matters throughout the country.
Mann’s trial work has taken him to various federal and state courts where he’s tried both cases to…

Philip P. Mann is a trial lawyer with over twenty years experience litigating patent, trademark, trade secret, and other intellectual property matters throughout the country.
Mann’s trial work has taken him to various federal and state courts where he’s tried both cases to the court (a judge) as well as before juries. In addition to trial court work, Mann has performed appellate work before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Mann began his legal career in Chicago and Milwaukee before heading to Seattle where some of America’s most innovative companies were developing new technologies at breakneck speed. Before founding his own firm, he was a member of the Seattle Intellectual Property Law Firm, Christensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness.
Mann is an “AV” rated lawyer by Martindale Hubbell, indicative that he has reached the height of professional excellence and is recognized for the highest levels of skill and integrity.
He holds a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois (Urbana) and received his law degree from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri. He is admitted to practice in the States of Illinois and Washington, as well as before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and in various courts around the country.