This law effectively 'froze' the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules. Under this Act, additional works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still copyrighted in 1998 will not enter the public domain until 2019 or afterwards (depending on the date of the product) unless the owner of the copyright releases them into the public domain prior to that or if the copyright gets extended again. Unlike copyright extension legislation in the European Union, the Sonny Bono Act did not revive copyrights that had already expired. The Act did extend the terms of protection set for works that were already copyrighted, and is retroactive in that sense. However, works created before January 1, 1978 but not published or registered for copyright until recently are addressed in a special section and may remain protected until 2047. The Act became on October 27, 1998.
Under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the signatory states are required to provide copyright protection for a minimum term of the life of the author plus fifty years, but they are permitted to provide for a longer term of protection. Following the 1993 Directive on harmonising the term of copyright protection, member states of the European Union implemented protection for a term of the author's life plus seventy years. The United States did not become a Berne signatory until 1988, but had previously provided for the minimum copyright term the convention required in the Copyright Act of 1976.
Prior to the 1976 copyright act, many copyrighted literary works, movies and fictional characters were soon to pass into the public domain due to their 56 year maximum copyright terms. Some of these copyrighted items remained quite profitable for their copyright owners, including several characters owned by the Walt Disney Company. With the passage of the 1976 copyright act, early animated short films featuring Mickey Mouse such as Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy would not enter the public domain until 2000 at the earliest due to their new 75 year copyright terms. Mickey Mouse and other characters also have protection as trademarks. In several countries (e.g. in Russia, where the Berne convention was not applied retroactively) Mickey Mouse and all other copyrighted works created before 1970 are now regarded as being in the public domain.
After the United States' accession to the Berne convention, a number of copyright owners successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress for another extension of the term of copyright, to provide for the same term of protection that exists in Europe. The act was named after the late Congressman Sonny Bono, who died nine months before the act became law. Bono, who, as a songwriter and filmmaker had his own interests in advancing copyright terms, had favored increasing them even before his entry into politics as the mayor of Palm Springs, California.
Both houses of the United States Congress passed the act as Public Law 105-298 with a voice vote, making it impossible to determine who voted for or against. President Bill Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 on October 27, 1998.
The Senate Report gave the official reasons for passing copyright extension laws and was originally written in the context of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1995, .
The purpose of the bill is to ensure adequate copyright protection for American works in foreign nations and the continued economic benefits of a healthy surplus balance of trade in the exploitation of copyrighted works. The bill accomplishes these goals by extending the current U.S. copyright term for an additional 20 years. Such an extension will provide significant trade benefits by substantially harmonizing U.S. copyright law to that of the European Union while ensuring fair compensation for American creators who deserve to benefit fully from the exploitation of their works. Moreover, by stimulating the creation of new works and providing enhanced economic incentives to preserve existing works, such an extension will enhance the long-term volume, vitality and accessibility of the public domain.
The authors of the report believed that extending copyright protection would help the United States by providing more protection for their works in foreign countries and by giving more incentive to digitize and preserve works since there was an exclusive right in them. The report also included minority opinions by Herb Kohl and Hank Brown, who believed that the term extensions were a financial windfall to current owners of copyrighted material at the expense of the public's use of the material.
Actually, Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever. I am informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution. ... As you know, there is also [then-MPAA president] Jack Valenti's proposal for term to last forever less one day. Perhaps the Committee may look at that next Congress.
Proponents of the Bono Act argue that it is necessary given that the life expectancy of humans has risen dramatically since Congress passed the original Copyright Act of 1790, that a difference in copyright terms between the United States and Europe would negatively affect the international operations of the entertainment industry, and that some works would be created under a longer copyright that would never be created under the existing copyright. They also claim that copyrighted works are an important source of income to the US and that media such as VHS, DVD, Cable and Satellite have increased the value and commercial life of movies and television series.
Proponents contend that Congress has the power to pass whatever copyright term it wants because the language "To promote the progress of science and useful arts" in the United States Constitution is not a substantive limitation on the powers of Congress, leaving the sole restriction that copyrights must only last for "limited times." However, in what respect the granted time must be limited has never been determined, thus arguably even an absurdly long, yet finite, duration would still be a valid limited time according to the letter of the Constitution as long as Congress was ostensibly setting this limit to promote the progress of science and useful arts. This was one of the arguments that prevailed in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the CTEA. It is also pointed out by proponents that the extension did not prevent all works from going in the public domain. They note that the 1976 Copyright Act establishment that unpublished works created before 1978 will enter the public domain by 2003 remained unaffected by the 1998 extension. They also claim that Congress has actually increased the scope of the public domain since, for the first time, unpublished works will enter the public domain.
Proponents believe that copyright encourages progress in the arts. With an extension of copyright, future artists have to create something original, rather than reuse old work. Proponents contend that it is more important to encourage all creators to make new works instead of just copyright holders.
Proponents claim that copyright better preserves intellectual property like movies, music and television shows. One example given is the case of the classic film It's a Wonderful Life. Before Republic Pictures and Spelling Entertainment (who owned the motion picture rights to the short story and the music even after the film itself became public domain) began to assert their rights to the film, various local TV stations and cable networks broadcast the film endlessly. As New York Times reporter Bill Carter put it: "the film's currency was being devalued. Many different versions of the film were made and most if not all were in horrible condition. After underlying rights to the film were enforced, it was given a high quality restoration that was hailed by critics. In addition, proponents note that once a work falls into the public domain there is no guarantee that the work will be more widely available or cheaper. Suggesting that quality copies of public domain works are not widely available, they argue that one reason for a lack of availability may be because publishers' reluctance to publish a work that is in the public domain for fear that they will not be able to recoup their investment or earn enough profit.
Proponents reject the idea that only works in the public domain can provide artistic inspiration. They note that many copyrighted works have also had big influences. Examples include the fact that King Kong and the works of George Lucas did not need to be in the public domain to inspire Peter Jackson. The witty gags, and timing of Tex Avery cartoons still have influence on cartoonists today, even though most, if not all, of them are copyrighted. The works of rap artists such as Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur have had influence on the rap community. The Godfather had and still has a major influence on gangster films and television shows. Many copyrighted works, including the above mentioned, have become a major part of popular culture and have been the subject of commentary and parody even without being in the public domain. It should be noted that copyright only protects the artist's expression of his/her work and not the ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in it and thus artists are free to get ideas from copyrighted works as long as they don't plagiarize. Works such as parody benefit from fair use.
Proponents also question the idea that extended copyright is "corporate welfare." They state that many opponents also have a stake in the case, claiming that those arguing against copyright term extension are mostly businesses that depend on distributing films and videos that have lost their copyright.
Another argument against the Bono Act is an "offshore production" argument: that, for example, derivative works could be created outside the United States in areas where copyright would have expired, such works advancing science or the useful arts, and that US law would prohibit these works to US residents. A movie of Mickey Mouse playing with a computer (à la Sorcerer's Apprentice) could be legally created in Russia and children worldwide could possibly benefit from watching it, but the movie would be refused admission for importation by US Customs because of copyright, resulting in a deprivation to American children.
Opponents point out to another aspect of extension of copyright terms: loss of productive value of private collections of copyrighted works. A person who had collected copyrighted works which would soon be "going out of copyright", with the intention of re-releasing these works upon expiration of copyright, lost the use of his capital expenditures for an additional 20 years when the Bono Act was passed. This is part of the underlying argument in Eldred v. Ashcroft. The Bono Act is thus perceived to add an instability to commerce and investment, areas which have a much better legal theoretical basis than intellectual property, whose theory is of quite recent development and is often criticized as being a corporate chimera. Conceivably, if one had made such an investment and then produced a derivative work (or perhaps even re-released the work in ipse), he could counter a suit made by the copyright holder by declaring that Congress had unconstitutionally made, ex post facto, a restriction on the previously unrestricted.
Opponents also question the proponents' "new works would not be created" argument by pointing out proponents' hidden presumption that the goal is to make the creation of new works possible, whereas the authors of the United States Constitution evidently thought that unnecessary and explicitly restricted the goal to merely "promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts". In fact, some works created under time-limited copyright would not be created under perpetual copyright because the creator of a distantly derivative work does not have the money and resources to find the owner of copyright in the original work and purchase a license, or the individual or privately held owner of copyright in the original work might refuse to license a use at any price (though a refusal to license may trigger a fair use safety valve).
Thus they argue that a rich, continually replenished, public domain is necessary for continued artistic creation. For example, the works of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare and the Greek myths have been the basis for much of Neil Gaiman's writing, which might well not have been created if the original works were still under copyright. Recent works that have entered the popular culture, and for which copyright is arguably not appropriate, include the novels that created Frankenstein and Dracula, both originating in the 19th century. Most of the holy writings of major religions are also in the public domain, which allows them to be adapted, translated, paraphrased and otherwise made suitable to modern audiences. If the Roman Catholic Church had a perpetual copyright on the letters of the Apostle Paul, the four Gospels, the Book of Revelation and the letters of James, Peter, John, Jude and the anonymous author of the Book of Hebrews, it could have refused to license them for translation, or for use by other churches. Even Walt Disney and Disney pictures, have used works from the public domain notably the brothers Grimm stories of which they have made several notable films.
Publishers and librarians, among others, brought Eldred v. Ashcroft to obtain an injunction on enforcement of the act. Oral arguments were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on October 9, 2002, and on January 15, 2003 the court held the CTEA constitutional by a 7-2 decision.
The plaintiffs in the Eldred case have as of 2003 begun to shift their effort toward the U.S. Congress in support of a bill called the Public Domain Enhancement Act that would make the provisions of the Bono Act apply only to copyrights that had been registered with the Library of Congress.