WASHINGTON — Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) joined other Republicans in Congress shaking their fists at the Walt Disney Company for opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law prohibiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation.
This week, Hawley introduced a bill to shorten the duration of federal copyright protection. The measure would apply retroactively only for firms with a market capitalization above $150 billion that operate in the motion picture industry.
Basically, companies like Disney.
Hawley acknowledged that Disney’s response to the Florida law inspired his legislation but stressed the bill did not solely target Disney — since a law punishing an individual entity could be unconstitutional.
“It applies to any corporation with over $150 billion in revenue,” Hawley, a former constitutional law professor, told HuffPost. “You can’t target just one company.”
The measure won’t become law, but if it did, other companies would be able to legally make money from unlicensed Disney knockoff material without having to wait for copyright expirations that plop its intellectual property into the public domain.
Hawley cast his bill as part of his broader campaign against Big Tech and “woke corporations”; it is also the latest bit of culture war grandstanding by Republicans after Disney said it opposed Florida’s ban on the classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” a Disney spokesperson said of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in March.
Florida Republicans led by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) retaliated against Disney in April by enacting a law to cancel Walt Disney World’s special tax district.
Even without a change in federal law, Disney stands to lose some of its copyright protections. On Jan. 1, 2024, for instance, Disney will lose its copyright on the 1928 short film “Steamboat Willie” and the first iteration of its star character, Mickey Mouse.
The cartoon rodent would have fallen into the public domain several times in previous decades, but Congress has repeatedly extended the duration of federal copyright laws thanks to fierce lobbying by Disney.
In response to the Florida furor, several House Republicans have said they would oppose any effort by Disney to extend its copyrights, but it’s not clear if Disney intends to lobby for another extension. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
James Grimmelmann, an intellectual property expert at Cornell Law School, described opposition to Disney’s copyrights as “harmless grandstanding” against something that’s not even happening.
“There is no political coalition pushing strongly for further extensions; the sky did not fall on the copyright industries when works from the 1920s started entering the public domain again,” Grimmelmann said in an email. “Being against copyright extension is like being against Prohibition. Nobody’s out there campaigning hard to bring it back. The Mouse doesn’t care.”
Hawley’s symbolic proposal, on the other hand, would shorten copyright protections for new works going forward from as long as 120 years, as under current law, to just 56 years ― essentially restoring copyright terms to their duration when Richard Nixon was president.
“That doesn’t just line him up against Disney,” Grimmelmann said. “It puts him on the opposite side of basically every author, musician, photographer and artist in the United States.”