MINNIE: Mickey, don't do this! He's had enough!
HARRY: Stop making excuses, he'll never learn. He won't listen to you!
MINNIE: Don't say that. He's a great mouse, more than twice the man you'll ever be.
Death of a Mouse was published at 00:00:01am on January 1st 2047, becoming the very first play to exploit the millions of copyrighted works newly released to the public domain.
Featuring two of the most famous 'newly liberated' characters, Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter, the play is derivative, confusing, and generally mediocre. Despite these shortcomings, performances of it were sold out for a week at the Toronto Fringe, thanks to its appeal towards the nostalgia of the elderly and the retro inclinations of the day's youth.
Death of a Mouse is not the best of the thousands of books, films, games, and plays that grew from the extraordinary fruits of the eight-year ‘Long Congress’ of 2032 — but it is perhaps the most relevant in understanding what the creative world was like before the Congress.
Copyright is a comparatively new invention in historical terms, dating back to the beginning of the 18th century. In the three brief centuries that followed, copyright terms ballooned from 28 years to a whopping 'lifetime plus 70 years', and these terms eventually extended across the world thanks to international trade agreements.
Even these generous terms, which provided for the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren of the original creator, were not enough for some. Disney, Fox, Macmillan, Dreamworks, and others that depended on exploiting old copyrighted works all fought for and won special extensions for their works during the teens and 20s; with each court victory, they were granted effectively eternal copyright. The very corporations that had grown wealthy and powerful from monetising beloved public domain characters such as Snow White or Robin Hood had zero intention of returning the favour with their own characters. Their profits trumped all else.
However, by the 30s, a tipping point was reached. The enforcement of the first sale doctrine across the EU and ASEAN that allowed consumers to resell digital goods; the long-delayed consequences of the total digitisation of media; and fierce competition from individual creative craftspeople — they all made it increasingly difficult to generate large profits from creative media. It was a reversion to the historical default where content was neither rivalrous nor excludable. Only the biggest corporations with the biggest archives and IP survived, relying largely on first-day sales and subscriptions. But their profits were dwindling, along with their lobbying efforts.
It was also clear that there was no practical way to enforce copyright without also severely curtailing civil liberty. Billions of people routinely recorded terabytes of video and audio with their wearables every day. This data was treated as sacrosanct, just as private and inviolable as someone's very memories. The notion that it should somehow be edited or censored simply because it could include overheard copyrighted songs struck most as unconscionable. One only had to flick through a book, listen to a song, or watch a movie in order to keep it forever. Even sophisticated apps and games could be reverse-engineered and replicated with the help of specialised AIs and amplified teams.
The lack of enforceability was not the strongest reason to change copyright, though. Most convincing were philosophical objections about the importance of the free flow of ideas and the choking effect that long copyright terms had on the collaborative, gift-like nature of creativity.
It was in this shifting environment that the Second Berne Convention began in 2032, with the goal of devising a new international copyright system. After three weeks of fruitless negotiation, little was agreed other than to hold an extended 'copyright congress' that included all relevant parties — and so the Long Congress began, eight years of ideological battles and horse-trading.
For the first three years of the Congress, publishers and other interests held the upper hand due to their superior organisation and a clear, unified goal — the preservation of the existing system. Only slight concessions were offered, such as the inclusion of privately recorded and replayed memories under 'fair use' provisions. These provisions would have passed in 2035 were it not for the defection of two crucial delegates.
Thanks to one of those delegates — Roger Hyde, an American — the opponents of the status quo began to unite under a single banner. Rather than advocating for the abolition of copyright, they argued for a return to the rules seen in the 18th and 19th centuries: a 14-year term, renewable only once, with the requirement that all copyrighted works also be easily licensed. This became known as 'classic' copyright. Other provisions limited the ability for corporations to indefinitely trademark characters or ideas — a crucial factor for the reuse of characters such as Mickey Mouse.
Sensing that this was perhaps the best they were going to get given the popular climate, the publishers reluctantly signed on in 2040, but only after extracting the major concession of a seven-year grace period. This allowed them to 'get their affairs in order', which typically involved the transition of classic properties into new, copyrightable forms, and a major investment in new creative works (ironically, the entire purpose of copyright in the first place).
The volume of work that was released into the public domain in 2047 was truly staggering: every piece of music, every TV show, every book, every game, every film, every artwork published before 2019. And every single year, more work was liberated.
Our play, Death of a Mouse, eventually fell out of copyright itself 28 years later, in 2075; the creator said that he was "no longer interested in the works of [his] 40s" and declined to renew the copyright. A year later, it was remixed into a satirical game, Death of a Death by Ha-Joon Hui, exploring themes of opportunism, creativity, and 40s corporatist nostalgia. Today, Death of a Death is widely cited as one of the most influential games of the 70s, so it seems that reduced copyright terms really can refresh old ideas — eventually.