Our issue with copyright extensions has always been the lack of quid pro quo: the public protects your right to exploit and profit from your work through laws and enforcement. In return for this service, you, the artist, give back to the public by allowing your work to enter the public domain after a reasonable period of time. The definition of reasonable is quite elastic, and as we’ve seen in recent years, subject to expansion to meet corporate needs.
So the public is all quid pro while copyright holders aren’t doing the quo.
The Eldred decision is a good example. Until 1909, an author could receive copyright protection for no more than 56 years, after which the work would fall into the public domain. But thanks to industry lobbying, Congress extended the terms in 1976, and again in 1998. As a result, no copyrights have fallen into the public domain since the 1970s unless their owners chose not to renew them. There’s every reason to think Congress will grant another extension around 2018, when the current terms begin to expire. Despite the Constitutional requirement that copyrights be “for limited times,” Congress has effectively made them perpetual, one extension at a time.
We like to call this the Disney extension because if it weren’t Mickey Mouse, copyright terms likely would have been extended, but only to reasonable limits. As it’s getting late, we will now sit back and wonder what Hollywood and the publishing industry would do if Jane Austen had been allowed to extend her copyright indefinitely.