Copyright is Killing Comedy!

Copyright plays a large role in legacy entertainment business models and animation is no exception. Thanks to the existence of the Mickey Mouse Copyright Act, very little American animation has made it into the public domain, and with recent rumblings about yet another extension, we’re unlikely to see any new ones entering for the foreseeable future. So we know it’s killing the completed package, but how is it killing the actual animation itself? For that we turn to a joke that was nixed for copyright reasons alone.

The Joke

What you see above is a joke that the sooooper talented Brianne Drouhard wanted to include in her too-good-to-get-picked-up series of Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld shorts for DC/Cartoon Network.

It should be readily familiar, coming from one of the the greatest animated shorts ever committed to celluloid, One Froggy Evening. Sung by Michigan J. Frog, it’s a tune from 1899 entitled (appropriately enough, Hello! Ma Baby).

The short itself is widely acclaimed and the tune has becomome synonymous with both it and the character. Given many animator’s penchant for in-jokes and referential humour, it’s intended use in another cartoon should come as not surprise.

The Result

Except, it never got passed the eagle eyes of Warners legal department. Effectively banned from ever appearing on-screen, the joke was discarded and only came to light on twitter. An unfortunate end to what could have been a really funny joke; especially so given the excellence of the series overall.

That is far from the end of the story however. There are a number of aspect to this case that make it all the more intriguing, and troubling.

First of all, there are multiple layers of copyright at work here:

  • the copyright on Amethyst
  • the copyright on One Froggy Evening
  • the copyright on the lyrics

The first one is irrelevant to this post as its use in Amethyst is the creation in question.

One Froggy Evening is irrelevant because although the joke references it, it doesn’t make use of any creative parts from the short. In any case, if it did, it’s owned by Warners and under the same corporate umbrella as DC and Cartoon Network.

Nope, it’s the last one, the lyrics. Although the short is being created and released in the US, it is naturally going to make its way abroad (and if not, who cares, better safe than sorry, right?) Copyright laws abroad are not the same as the US, and in some jurisdictions are longer and have different rules for songs over other art forms.

The gist here, is that even though the song was written in 1899, there’s a really good possibility that it’s either still under copyright in another jurisdiction, or someone else retains the rights to its use.

With that in mind, it becomes clearer my Warners would rather eliminate it rather than use it and have to pay the privilege for doing so.

The Unfortunate Reality

While it may sound like Warners did the right thing, they in fact, only did the cheaper thing. This creates the unfortunate result that an animated show is funny in a different way than it could have been.

The crux and real concern is that this is one example that came to light. Who knows how many other examples are out there; tons of comedic material wasted because of copyright. Just imagine how funny the Simpsons would be if they couldn’t have used half the jokes they did? (If you’ve any appreciation at all, you’ll get down on your knees and be grateful for the parody provision in US copyright law.)

The only potential saving grace is that as culture becomes more open, we’ll see more of this kind of humour that doesn’t need permission or clearances in order to be used.

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