How Mickey Mouse Beat The Shit Out Of Thomas Jefferson

Below is an excerpt from a piece posted over on Techdirt by Lloyd Kaufman on the subject of copyright, the public domain and the Founding Fathers. It’s a great post in its own right, but when it gets really interesting (for us) is when he starts talking about animation and how one company in particular seems to have been the driving force behind the various copyright extensions over the years.

It also serves as a nice preamble to an upcoming series of posts here on The Animation Anomaly dealing with the various legal dealings that animators should be aware of.

HOW MICKEY MOUSE BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THOMAS JEFFERSON

In 1928, Mickey Mouse appeared in the first sound-synchronized cartoon, Steamboat Willie , which was a parody (in Disnenglish, a copyright infringement) of a Buster Keaton film, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Mickey Mouse became an instant star and Walt Disney’s meal ticket. By 1956, when “Steamboat Willie” was all set to enter the public domain, Disney had become a powerhouse corporation, and it interceded on little Mickey’s behalf:

Disney Executive: You see, Senator, if “Steamboat Willie” were to belong to the public, they would pretty much own Mickey Mouse, too. And we can’t let that happen.

Senator: No, no. We must protect Mickey.

Disney Executive: What we need, Senator, is an extension of the copyright law. That way, we can keep Mickey safe.

Senator: Yes, yes. We must protect Mickey.

Disney Executive: Yes, Senator, we must protect Mickey.

The Disney executive puts away his hypnotist materials, leaves a pile of cash on the table, and leaves. The hypnotized senator wakes up with the overwhelming urge to protect Mickey Mouse. Days later, copyright law is extended.

Buster Keaton, however, continues to receive food stamps.

This scene is repeated in 1984 and 2003. “Steamboat Willie” will remain the intellectual property of Disney until 2023, almost 100 years after it was created and many, many years after the last person who worked on it became snail food. And at some point before 2023, I’m guessing the copyright laws will be extended once again.

An interesting little twist to this whole story, which was sent to me by steamboat4eva@hotmail.com, is that someone at Disney discovered in the 1990s that “Steamboat Willie” may actually be in the public domain already. This was due to a mistake in the wording of the original copyright. A law student at Arizona State University investigated this claim and agreed [article link for the curious]. Then another law student at Georgetown wrote another paper confirming the claim. At this point, Disney threatened to sue the student and the claim hasn’t been uttered since.

Mickey Mouse’s Copyright Law

How old is Mickey Mouse? Well, he’s about 82 years if he’s a day. So why is he still under copyright while other early cartoon stars are not? Well, for one, plenty of companies from that era went out of business long ago and their associated copyrights are either forgotten about or expired.

Yet Mickey’s has not. He is still fully owned, and will continue to be owned, by the Walt Disney Company for the foreseeable future at least. Consistent enforcement of copyright is part of it. Disney is still very much in business, and is certainly enforcing its legal rights regarding infringement.

So why exactly does Mickey Mouse have his own copyright law? Well for one, it isn’t really his, its Sonny Bono’s (the guy with the bomb in Airplane, also he was a singer of some sort in the 60s). The act itself extended copyright terms in the US for 20 more years, on top of the life plus 50 years already offered. Corporate authorship is now 120 years, increased from 75 years.

The reason it’s called the Mickey Mouse law is the presumption, and possibility, that it was the looming date on which Mickey Mouse would enter the public domain, that coerced the Disney company to begin lobbying for such an extension.

What advantage does this serve? Well for one, it means Disney can continue to extract license fees for the old films for a start. It also prevents anyone else from making similar or derivative works based on the films.

Is this a good thing? Well for the copyright holder? Yes, they can continue to make money. Personally, I think this is a bad thing. OK, so you continue to own the character, but if he is freely available, then even more people can enjoy him, It may even push up demand for the films that are almost as old but still covered by copyright.

If you think about it, if the public domain was such a bad thing, publishers wouldn’t be publishing all those Jane Austin or Charles Dickens novels. Sure you can read them online for free, and yet people still buy the books, and publishers still make a profit from them, even though they aren’t covered by any copyright! Amazing isn’t it?

Do you think Disney would lose a ton of money just because a few films from the 20s and 30s enter the public domain? Unlikely. When was the last time you seen one of those films? For me it’s been a number of years.

So there you go. Mickey Mouse has his own law, and the company behind it is all the worse for it.