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KNOXVILLE — The United States Supreme Court is debating whether a 1998 law extending copyright protection for works of art an additional 20 years is constitutional.

The outcome of the case will determine when classic works of art will be available for free use by the public.

University of Tennessee law professor Dr. Gary Pulsinelli said challengers to the law want to protect

Dr. Gary Pulsinelli

the public’s right to have access to creative material, but corporations are trying to protect their intellectual property.

“For the past hundred years, Congress has kept extending the copyright term,” Pulsinelli said. “A lot of it seems to be linked to Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Every time it looks like early versions of Mickey Mouse are about to fall into the public domain, Congress somehow finds that to be the right time to extend copyright protection for another 20 years or so.”

Pulsinelli said those challenging the law believe it’s time to make a clear distinction on when intellectual property should enter the public domain, because adding to the store of freely available material actually helps future creativity.

“A lot of creative work draws from what’s been created before, and everything in the past is copyrighted and you can’t use it without permission, the public domain gets thinner and thinner,” Pulsinelli said. “The idea is that we have to have some limits on this, so we have a sufficient public domain to build on in the future.”

The Walt Disney Company and AOL Time Warner are two of the corporations who derive millions of dollars in income each year from royalty payments and licensing fees, and are fighting to preserve those profits.

But Pulsinelli said the Framers of the U.S. Constitution were clear in their desire to see creative works eventually enter the public domain.