One of the great ironies of copyright law is the way Disney has often treated the subject. While the company is famous for being the main player in pushing to extend copyright law every time Mickey Mouse is about to fall into the public domain, it's also made its living taking content from others and reusing it. Many of Disney's most famous movies are all based on public domain works, which they appropriated and turned into derivative works. Even Mickey Mouse falls into the appropriated folder. As Larry Lessig helped publicize when fighting the last Disney-inspired copyright extension, Mickey Mouse's first video, Steamboat Willie, was actually a take-off on Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, from just a year earlier. So while Disney continues to push to keep its own characters away from other's uses, it appears that it's running into some problems when it comes to the rights of others. For about a decade and a half, Disney has been fighting with Stephen Slesinger Inc., who was given the rights to A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh character in 1930. There have been some disagreements along the way, but Disney negotiated some sort of license with Slesinger in 1961, and an updated agreement in 1983. However, Slesinger has been claiming that Disney has been underpaying royalties on the Pooh character, to the point that the company feels it's owed approximately $2 billion (yes, with a b). Disney went to court to have Slesinger's rights voided -- but it appears that the court isn't buying Disney's argument. Neither party comes out of this looking very good -- but, it sure is interesting to see how Disney, which claims to be such a big supporter of rights surrounding fictional characters, treats someone else's rights in that same space.
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