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Expanding Copyright’s Lifespan

Copyright is a legal right that keeps intellectual property safe, and allows individuals to profit from their efforts. Yet, these copyrighted works will at some point head over to the public domain after their expiration, which means they are not protected anymore.  What if it did not expire? In fact, recent decisions and lobbying have tried to push the effective “lifespan” of copyrights.  Instead of the life of the author, plus 70 years, it becomes further extended. So, how might this happen? What are the decisions that push for an artificially long copyright? How might an entity take advantage of this extension?

Warner Brothers v. X One X Productions:

For a few years now, there has been a legal dispute between Warner Brothers and X One X Productions, commonly known as AVELA, over the copyrights of various properties, like Wizard of Oz and Tom & Jerry. Now, these properties are still protected through copyright, but not entirely.  AVELA had taken a path akin to Dastar, and used images from promotional art, which was not renewed, and placed into the public domain since it failed to renew under the copyright laws of the time. However, back in 2011, a decision was made finding against AVELA, and while damages were disputed, the court found that Warner Brother’s awarded damages were not only justified, but they were liable for trademark infringement as well. Ultimately, this finding was because the works themselves were no longer under copyright protection, however the base work was, and the trademarks for the base work. Thus, any copies of the work incorporating the protected characters, or alterations, would become derivative works, covered under the copyright for the base work. Furthermore, the trademarks, like the names or character designs would be protected too.  Also, as trademarks have no expiration date, they can effectively push the protection of this sort of copyright further.

Converting Copyrights to Trademarks

Warner Brothers is not the only group to use this method to further protect its intellectual property. The best example for those with children would be the work “Steamboat Willie” which is an old Disney cartoon that will go into the public domain in 2024.  Disney is planning to convert it and Mickey Mouse into trademarks, showing a short clip from the cartoon before animated features, as an identifying feature. While, this is not much of a boon for businesses starting out, for those planning to profit from any public domain works, it creates further snags as the perceived free use of this content may result in litigation.  However, the fluidity of copyright and trademark in this aspect does make it easier and affords further chances for protection in various intellectual property, giving further avenues for protection.  It also depends on the nature and intricacy of the work, and thus far, seems to apply best, if not only to copyrights turning into trademarks.

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