Death by Copyright

Protest Mickey

Yesterday I covered Disney's criminal underpayment of animators and called for the government to launch an anti-trust suit against them. Reader Man of the Atom reminded me of more unsavory Disney shenanigans that present another way to take them down.

From Priceonomics:
For Disney, Mickey Mouse is not just a huge money maker, but the company’s most coveted piece of intellectual property. Mickey is Disney, and Disney is Mickey: the two are simply one and the same, and nothing is more important to Disney than his well-being. (“I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known,” Walt Disney once famously said).
For this reason, Disney has done everything in its power to make sure it retains the copyright on Mickey -- even if that means changing federal statutes. Every time Mickey’s copyright is about to expire, Disney spends millions lobbying Congress for extensions, and trading campaign contributions for legislative support. With crushing legal force, they’ve squelched anyone who attempts to disagree with them.
Let Disney's undue influence over US lawmaking serve as a sobering rebuke to free market worshipers. An animation company now wields so much power over Congress that we can rightly be said to have a Mickey Mouse government.
By the mid-1990s, Disney again began to feel the impending doom. In addition to the 2003 expiration of Mickey’s copyright, Pluto was set to expire in 2005, Goofy in 2007, and Donald Duck in 2009. The gang, collectively worth billions, had to be retained, so Disney began lobbying again.
In 1997, Congress introduced the Copyright Term Extension Act, which proposed to extend corporate copyrights again -- this time, from 75 to 95 years. To ensure the bill passed, Disney cozied up to legislators.
Watchdog records show that the Disney Political Action Committee (PAC) paid out a total of $149,612 in direct campaign contributions to those considering the bill. Of the bill’s 25 sponsors (12 in the Senate, and 13 in the House), 19 received money from Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner. In one instance, Eisner paid Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) $1,000 on the very same day that he signed on as a co-sponsor.
Here's a handy chart showing Disney's lobbying efforts over time:

Mickey Mouse copyright chart

On October 27, 1998, Mickey Mouse’s copyright was extended another 20 years, to 2023.
That means Disney's undead copyright on Mickey Mouse is set to expire halfway through Trump's second term. Not only will he have replaced Kennedy by then, but probably also Breyer and Ginsburg--the latter of whom wrote this decision:
In the opinion of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the language set forth in the Constitution -- that the role of the copyright was to “promote the progress of science and useful arts" -- did not limit the power of Congress to change the law.
An anti-trust suit would be like shining sun on a plague-spreading vampire. But now we've got another weapon: death by copyright. Disney's deep pockets will probably be able to buy Congress the next time Mickey nears his expiration date, but we finally have a President who just might veto it. Meanwhile, somebody should challenge Congress' power to infinitely extend copyright in court again. It would be interesting to see how they'd fare with Ginsberg gone, though even a SCOTUS stacked 7-2 in our favor wouldn't be a sure bet.

Luckily, there's no reason we can't do both. Hit Disney with an anti-trust case, and KO them with a copyright extension denial. That's what playing to win the culture war looks like.

And I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is on this one. I'm an independent author. Copyright gives my work important legal protections. I support copyright reform, though, since there's data indicating that copyright law had a chilling effect on my business in the mid-twentieth century.

Copyright New Books

In the meantime, I remain in complete control of my work--which is why I can offer you my thrilling Soul Cycle series on sale in print and eBook. This deal only lasts for two more days. Get the whole mind-bending series now!

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier


  1. Early copyrights were for a 14-year period, then the work reverted to the public domain.

    How appropriate! If Disney fails in again extending the Copyright Freeze, 'Bambi' will be one of the works that moves to the Public Domain in 2019.

    "In the US, annual copyright term expiry is set to begin again in 2019, after a 20-year hiatus due to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. On January 1, 2019, items published in 1923 will enter the public domain in the US. In the early days of Project Gutenberg, growth of the public domain on January 1 was an annual event. See Duke Law's "Public Domain Day" for a listing of many items that were scheduled to enter the public domain, but have yet to do so because of the 1998 extension. Some notable items scheduled to enter the public domain in 2019 include Felix Salten's 'Bambi' and Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet'."

    Disney is a destroyer of the US economy. If they did in 1960 what they do today, Microsoft might not exist, since Gates used a public domain codebase to build GW Basic, which was the core code that built the company. (Note: no fan of MS here.)

    Why the Public Domain matters.

    1. Lot of food for thought here. ^

    2. By 1960 Disney had gotten up to plenty of other dirty tricks to unfairly get the drop on competition. Going back to their days of making the major animated classics everyone loves, in fact. Here's one good example.

      In the late forties a British studio was hard at work on a combination live-action stop-motion Alice in Wonderland. Disney rushed their own animated version into production, hoping to beat it into theaters. They couldn't. They leaned on Technicolor not to process their color, forcing them to use Ansco, which meant a major drop in quality. They pounded the studio with every legal dirty trick in the book to keep the picture from coming out in the US and Europe. They couldn't. And even then Disney purportedly leaned on theater chains not to screen the rival film, who complied, for fear of losing access to future Disney releases.
      Strikes you how little things actually change, huh?

      Ironically, both films bombed in 1951 when they finally came out. But through the magic of market saturation, Disney kept trucking out their Alice in theaters and television until eventually, the public came to believe it was some kind of classic. Warms the heart, doesn't it? There's hope for Solo yet, I guess.

  2. I could rant forever about Disney's messing up the public domain. All so they can send frivolous lawsuits to daycare.

    The most frustrating thing is, they wouldn't lose Micky. There have been plenty of updates to the character design that would remain under copyright. They'ed just lose exclusivity to the character, since the original character would be public domain.

    All these classic characters and fiction is being denied to the public domain, and remaining in the hands of rights squatters, purely due to the greed of Zombie Disney, whose' actions probably have Walt spinning in his grave.

    1. Their overweening greed and wolfish rapaciousness will be their downfall.

    2. Everybody forgets that Disney nearly bit the dust in the early 80s. The reason? A string of box office flops like Black Hole, The Black Cauldron, and Something Wicked This Way Comes--all of which I liked, by the way.

      The Mouse is already losing money on Star Wars. They have the MCU as a safety net right now, but the ropes will be cut when the original beloved cast of actors is replaced with the current crop of SJW mutants.

      Disney could very well be on the ropes financially soon. It seems unthinkable, but it's happened before, and for the same reason.

      The key this time will be to keep hammering them till they stop moving.

    3. And I bet we'll finally see wonderful Micky mouse and friends movies again.
      I bet that copyright reform will be a major plank in the next elections and will have an impact in Canada and Europe. There copyright is as oppressive


    4. "Disney could very well be on the ropes financially soon. It seems unthinkable, but it's happened before, and for the same reason."

      All it would take is two back-to-back multi-billion dollar flops. And Brian is correct -- the more converged Mouse Wars and Marble Comics get, the more likely that unfortunate happenstance becomes.

      "Nice tin cup you have there, Bob! No, I don't need any pencils today."

    5. The parks are still profitable. But when you start looking at how neglected the parks have been under Iger, there's a loss coming there as well.

  3. Hit Disney with an anti-trust case, and KO them with a copyright extension denial. That's what playing to win the culture war looks like.

    A small bonus to the Disney cartoons becoming public domain is that it's probably also the only way we'll ever get to see "Song of the South" again.

  4. I grew up wanting to work for Disney in animation. I earned my BFA degree in computer animation but wound up working in video games. Curiously, I did get to work on Disney Infinity, so I crossed Disney off the list.

    Thing is, I still love animation. Modern animation is grossly disappointing. Disney used to be a bastion of quality in a Fleischer, then Hannah Barbera, then Flash-based garbage world. Only Looney Tunes competed, and some Miyazaki work. Disney shorts of the 40s to 60s are still some of the best pieces of animation.

    Today, though, the animation world is a morass of low quality animation showing off garbage tier writing. It's ruining the art form. Disney is no exception, with only occasional flashes of competence.

    The copyright shenanigans have always been annoying, and I don't excuse that. I just miss the Disney that Walt built. Maybe the Pulp Revolution can work its way over to animation someday. I'd love to be able to make money as part of it, since I've written off modern Disney. It's a fair bit of work to make great animation, though, and that's hard to do as spec work.

    1. Cheers to that! I'm with you almost 100%, but if you don't mind me asking, what's the problem with Fleischer? I know a lot of animation aficionados don't care for those guys. Usually I see people complain about their rotoscope, but for me that was never a dealbreaker.
      Re: PulpRev, do you think small scale animators might ever be able to do beautiful works using older methods? Thinking of guys like Alexander Petrov and oil-paint-on-glass animation. Jeeez can you imagine what that would look like in service of a pulp adventure tale?

    2. I don't much mind the rotoscoping, actually. I think that Bakshi overused it, but Fleischer's use doesn't bug me. I mostly just don't like the character designs he used. Too many characters looking like weird porcelain dolls and things going weirdly off-model. It's a style thing, really, a question of taste; their technical merits are solid. It is unfair of me to drop them into the same bucket as HB, my mistake.

      I hope to see a renaissance in animation. I think the trouble is the audience, actually. Too many people accept Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network as mainstream, and really don't want to pay for quality work.

      Pixar has the occasional gem, and Dreamworks does a few things right, but there's just not much in the way of traditional media done any more because audiences don't buy it as much. There's some Catch-22 looping in there, most likely, but when even the main Disney animation department (not just Pixar) is doing things like Frozen and Moana, it's possible that they did some hard calculus and found the traditional work unprofitable. I'm not sure on that, but that's my suspicion.

      The thing is, 3D animation takes just as much work if not more sometimes. I'm not sure who to point at more than the audience and shifting tastes, though I'm sure there are those out there who still like the hand drawn work.

      Petrov's work is brilliant, and it would be nice to see someone pick up that thread. Very time intensive, though, even in animation, and that's hard to fund.

    3. Er, to more directly answer the question of small scale productions using older methods, I think it's definitely possible. Hullabaloo was crowdfunded and is making some progress, but it's slow going. I think that a lot of it will come down to talent, hard work and training... and who pays the bills. Maybe things have to work up from shorts to start with to get an audience foothold, but even then, who pays for short films these days?

    4. "Maybe things have to work up from shorts to start with to get an audience foothold, but even then, who pays for short films these days?"

      Fantasy and Science Fiction short story forms have the same argument, that no one is buying. Is it that there is no demand or is this a case of the audience doesn't know it exists?

      Perhaps as you allude this is an area where build-up of quality animation can take hold, then grow into other areas, such as feature films and series.

    5. Tesh

      An animator after my own heart I have a chemically pure viseral hatred of cartoon network. It'seems esthetics is the criteria de coeur of the cult of ugliness hat pervades 5 he arts.
      I diagree that the audience is to blame. They don't know any better how much of their heritage has been robbed and squandered by grifters and cultists.
      We need to use beauty as a counter rhetoric to wean them from the cultlists and grifters.


    6. Thanks for sharing your experience. Getting audiences to embrace beauty again after they've been conditioned to settle for mediocrity and outright ugliness for decades is a challenge. And it's a challenge we as creatives must meet.

      Human beings thirst for beauty by nature. That's our greatest advantage and the reason we'll ultimately succeed.

    7. I'm certainly on board for a return to beauty and inspiring work. That's what my BFA program was built on and where my mind has been for decades. My concerns aren't ideological, they are practical. I don't have solutions yet, but so far, making a living at this sort of venture isn't something I can do.

  5. "I'm not sure who to point at more than the audience and shifting tastes, though I'm sure there are those out there who still like the hand drawn work."

    Like with pulp, I'm willing to bet that the audience's tastes hasn't shifted, but those of the editors and producers.

    1. Pretty sure you'd win that bet. Disney had planned to shut down their cell animation studio a while back. The animators convinced corporate to let them make one more hand-drawn movie. If it flopped, they'd agree audience tastes had moved on, and it would be time to close up shop.

      That movie was Lilo and Stitch. It made its budget back more than three times over and spawned an animated TV series.

    2. I'm hoping so, I just look at what's on offer, and Japanese/Korean work is dominating the field. That's not bad, since things like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Young Justice and the new Voltron are actually good (even though they use anime shortcuts at times)... it's just that Western 2D animation has fallen off a cliff into the Nick/CN swamp. I'm missing something, I'm sure, but from what I see, there aren't any Western studios presently doing quality 2D animation.

      That seems like an opportunity, but something isn't getting traction and I'm not quite sure what it is.

    3. How much blame would you say CalArts deserves?

    4. That's a good question. There's definitely a hive mind sort of effect that happens when the talent gets concentrated the way it has there. The industry would be healthier with more competition. I'm not sure about quantifying that effect, though. CalArts gave us Brad Bird and some of the Pixar guys, though, so it's not all bad.

      I look at it almost like a Bauhaus sort of place, where their formula churns out usable people, but it has a disproportionate effect on the industry. We may need a couple of decades to get away from it, as alternatives build up over a generation or so.

    5. Thanks for the thorough and edifying answer.