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Mickey's initial cartoon could enter public domain

Is Mickey Mouse about to get a new home?

The rodent's first animated cartoon will soon enter the public domain unless Congress extends copyright terms. Once freed of copyright protection, 1928's "Steamboat Willie" could become source material for any number of curious new interpretations - just as Victor Hugo was turned inside-out for Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame."Legal protections on a number of Disney's earliest animated shorts - from "Puss 'n Boots" to "Alice's Wonderland" - are close to expiring, and the copyright on Mickey Mouse's debut film will lapse in five years. An estimated 50-to-60 Disney cartoon shorts could enter the public domain by 2011.

A bill extending copyrights for 20 years has the support of the Hollywood studios - including Disney - but the legislation may be stalled by a dispute over music fees.

Early movies aren't the only works whose copyrights are expiring. Music by George Gershwin, novels by Ernest Hemingway and poems by T.S. Eliot are all set to enter the public domain unless Congress acts.

Current law says copyrights to music written before 1978 expire 75 years after publication. An author's copyright lasts for 50 years after death, and a "work made for hire" - as in a movie - has a copyright of 75 years. Under the new bill, all terms would be extended 20 years.

A number of legal experts say the extension is bad policy, bringing a windfall to the studios - "jillions of dollars," one show business lobbyist concedes - while giving the actual creators of the works nothing.

"It's plain greed on the part of the copyright holders," said Dennis Karjala, an intellectual property professor at Arizona State University's College of Law.

Critics of the bill, sponsored by Rep. John Coble, R-N.C., say its language would have forbidden public use of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus until 1972. Thomas Nast held copyrights to both widely seen images. Nast died in 1902.

If adopted, foes add, the bill would put everything from Gershwin songs to recently discovered Mark Twain writings under the equivalent of monopoly control. You can buy Shakespeare for $5 because no publisher owns it.

Expiring copyrights enhance - not limit - the nation's creative output, the bill's opponents say.

Public domain properties are the sources for some of the country's most distinguished creative works. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" was the source for "West Side Story." Mozart's music was used in "Amadeus." Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" was turned into the 1939 classic starring Charles Laughton, as well as a Disney animated movie.

Hollywood's three major talent unions - the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America - all have endorsed the bill.

The WGA wants to attach language to the bill benefiting authors of movies released before 1960, the first year residuals were offered. No matter how many times 1942's "Casablanca" is shown, screenwriter Julius Epstein has never received anything besides his original writing fee of $15,208.