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Red letter days for copyright

As detailed on page 11 of this issue, the first iteration of the Walt Disney character Mickey Mouse is finally out of copyright, meaning “Steamboat Willie” – as the character was called in the his debut animated short way back in 1928 – can now legally be used by anyone else.

It’s a significant event, in that for many years the Walt Disney Company has aggressively protected its sole right to use and exploit its corporate mascot – along with all the other characters and properties it has created – to the point that its political lobbying and legal actions have been integral in pushing out copyright protection in the United States to 95 years [by way of contrast, George Orwell’s Animal Farm – which was published 79 years ago – is already in the public domain in the United Kingdom].

As with any area of law – especially those of particular importance to powerful corporate interests – copyright law is a bit of a rat’s nest.

However, the fundamental rationale for copyright – whether it involves literary works, scientific breakthroughs, or cartoon rodents – is it’s necessary to grant certain exclusive rights to creators that allow them to protect their creative works against theft and to receive the economic benefit from their use, because otherwise why would people bother creating things in the first place?

Granted, there are those enthusiasts who would continue to create things just for the sheer love of it, but there’s little argument that without copyright there would be far fewer new works that the public would benefit from in various ways. As a result, most people agree that creators should be allowed to have a certain period of exclusive copyright, and that we’d all be poorer for it if they didn’t.

However, there’s also a counter-argument that holds copyright stifles innovation; that creators of whatever ilk would be incentivised to rise to even greater heights of invention if they didn’t have the financial laurels from their previous work to rest on, and therefore copyright is ultimately the enemy of progress.

Now, there is an argument that allowing for exclusive copyright for too long does indeed have a deleterious impact on creativity and innovation, and one need not look any further than Disney for evidence. After all, when was the last time that company produced an original piece of work – even just a single character – that rivals the inventiveness of its earlier years? For decades the company has largely been in the business of recycling and rebooting its existing intellectual property, or simply paying vast amounts of money to acquire the creations of others [see, for example, the ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel franchises, and Pixar Studios], two strategies that have both arguably resulted in precipitously diminishing returns – creatively, anyway.

But to maintain that creators shouldn’t have the ability to be compensated for their work via copyright protections at all is surely patently absurd.

And yet that is essentially the attitude of the sultans of Silicon Valley, or so is suggested by a new suit taken by the New York Times against OpenAI and Microsoft [respectively the owner of and an investor in ChatGPT].

The legal action claims that millions of Times articles have been used without permission to train ChatGPT, and that now the online AI tool is actually competing with the media outlet as “a trustworthy information source”.

It’s a case with all sorts of interesting implications, some of which we’ll discuss in tomorrow’s editorial…

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