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What is the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (CTEA)?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 was established to lengthen the time in which copyrighted material would be considered non-public domain material. The CTEA was built to extend the original provisions of a copyright act established in 1790 by the US government, and the follow-up copyright act of 1976.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in the majority for the CTEA. President Clinton signed the act in late 1998. Thus the CTEA had bipartisan support, although Bono had served the Republican Party during his lifetime.

The CTEA was the brainchild of former entertainer Sonny Bono. Bono later became an elected member of the House of Representatives. His life was tragically cut short by a skiing accident in January of 1998. His wife Mary Bono, was elected to take his place in the House, and further promoted the CTEA.

The goal of the CTEA was to extend the terms of copyright on literary, television and film works, and on characters from literature, television and film. Under the CTEA, works currently under copyright were granted an additional 20 years of copyright status.

Thus a copyrighted work is protected for the life of the author, and then for 70 years after his or her death. For a copyrighted work or character that has been created through collaboration, copyright extends for the life of the authors and 95 years after the death of the authors.

As well, material created outside the US that is based on a copyrighted character or theme, cannot be sold within the US. For example, a video game featuring a copyrighted character that is created in Japan could not be sold legally in the US.

The CTEA did not restore copyright status to those works, which had already passed into the public domain. It only applied to works that currently still maintained copyright status. Some critics argued that this was unfair for works that would have maintained their status and had passed into the public domain a few years before the passage of the CTEA.

The CTEA has sometimes been referred to as the Mickey Mouse Act, since one of the main protections provided was for Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, which would soon lose their copyright status. Some critics feel that the protection of intellectual property goes too far, and the length of copyright time now might inhibit the production of creative works that could be derived from copyrighted material.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By wander — On Oct 23, 2011

I have been in various countries throughout Asia and I don't know what the copyright status of Mickey Mouse is over there, but there's a lot of stuff sold in street markets that are clearly not authorized by the Disney company. However, at more legitimate stores they have official Disney merchandise with holograms and everything to prove their authenticity.

If Mickey Mouse were in the public domain in America I guess it would be a lot like that. Does anyone know what the copyright duration laws are like in other countries? Are there cases where certain characters, books or movies are public domain in one country but not the rest of the world?

By letshearit — On Oct 22, 2011

We have this piece of legislation to thank for the fact that new works are passing into public domain at a snail's pace, depriving our culture of the chance to make brilliant new interpretations of classic twentieth century works of art. I don't see why an author should have their works protected for 70 years after their death, generations after they're no longer around to see any royalties from them.

It's no longer about protecting creative people and now it's all about corporations hoarding intellectual property for their own profit. As long as Disney has its way I guess the current laws will keep getting extended and no new works for hire will enter the public domain, ever.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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