Studios don't always own underlying rights on intellectual properties for indefinite periods. This applies to literary adaptations and even musical compositions. "We may have a limited right with an author lasting maybe 10 years," explains May. After that, the studio has to negotiate to extend the agreement, as MGM did with the Irving Berlin estate on the 1950 film version of "Annie Get Your Gun." Depending on the contracts, if rights are not extended, the movies may have to be taken out of circulation.
"The whole purpose of the copyright was to encourage people to create artistic works by giving them significant exclusivity," May says. "And there are a lot of authors who, over the years, have not wanted their work to be translated into another medium. I'm not sure that's wrong."
Capping the copyright at 75 years (and 50 years after an author's death), would open the door to a slew of novels, plays and musical compositions created in the '20s and '30s, denying the creators' heirs financial remuneration or artistic control over how the work is distributed or adapted.
The entertainment Goliaths would also be at odds with one another. If vintage studio films were in the public domain--as well as the source materials (original screenplays, adaptations, novels, musical works)--competing companies would be able to refashion them into new works for stage, screen and television.
But how many generations of heirs should enjoy the fruits of an author's labors before everyone is allowed free access? If Charles Dickens' novels were still under copyright and his estate proscribed any film or theatrical versions of his work, wouldn't the public be poorer as a result?
As some argue was the case with "It's a Wonderful Life," the expiration of exclusivity could lead to their rediscovery. For now, the current 95-year copyright (and, in the case of some authors, even longer) is in keeping with intellectual property rights recently established in many parts of Europe, copyright attorney Petrich points out, and rescinding the 20-year extension could place American works at a disadvantage. The Supreme Court's decision to look into the 1998 law, Petrich notes, indicates there is at least some support for overturning it.
The matter will be argued this fall, with the final decision expected by the end of this year or early next year.
Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar.