Turns Out Disney Might Not Own The Copyright On Early Mickey Mouse Cartoons

from the oops dept

Remember the recent story we had where some researchers noted that, despite the conventional wisdom (and claims from Time Warner), it appeared that Time Warner probably did not own the copyright on Happy Birthday? Of course, the company still collects millions for it, because people assume they do, but the historical evidence suggests that this is really incorrect. Now it turns out that the same thing may be true for Disney's copyright on Mickey Mouse. This is rather noteworthy considering both the history of Mickey Mouse, as well as how much effort Disney has always put towards copyright extension just as the supposed copyright on Mickey Mouse was about to expire.

Now, to be clear, Disney can continue to hold the trademark on Mickey Mouse for as long as it continues to use the mark in commerce, but the copyright should go into the public domain eventually -- meaning others can make use of the early works, as long as it's clear that they're not doing so as Disney. So what if all of these copyright extensions were for naught, and the copyright had already expired?

There seems to be rather compelling evidence that this is the case, and many legal scholars agree. Basically, Disney was a bit disorganized early on and appears to have screwed up the original copyright claims on some early Mickey Mouse shorts, which based on the law at the time would nullify the copyright altogether. Now, this would only count for those early clips, which had a slightly different version of Mickey.

Not surprisingly, Disney isn't particularly open to this argument. Not only does it dismiss the concept out of hand as "frivolous," it has also legally threatened a legal scholar who first published an analysis saying that the copyright was invalid. In a letter to the researcher, Disney warned him that publishing his research could be seen as "slander of title" suggesting that he was inviting a lawsuit. He still published and Disney did not sue, but it shows the level of hardball the company is willing to play.

Of course, the story can be different when Disney is on the other side of the coin. When it was discovered that someone else (other than Disney) probably held the copyright for Bambi, Disney went ballistic, throwing out arcane legal concept after arcane legal concept to come up with anything that would get the copyright out of the hands of this other potential owner. Disney basically threw every potential legal argument against the wall -- including claiming both that Bambi was in the public domain and that Disney owned the copyright to it.

Unfortunately, none of this is likely to amount to much. It's unlikely anyone will actually challenge Disney on the copyright of early Mickey Mouse (or that anyone will challenge Happy Birthday's copyright either). However, once again, we find that the supposed "ownership" of certain things isn't quite as clear cut as some would like you to believe.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    YoMamma, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 8:34am

    Mmm Minnie

    Sweet! Now we can openly continue making animations of Mickey f@#$ing Minnie.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 9:02am

    "...Now, this would only count for those early clips, which had a slightly different version of Mickey. "

    I think they are referring to Steamboat Willie, who eventually became Mickey Mouse.

    The argument could be extended that copyright applies to Mickey Mouse, but not Steamboat Willie, arguing the case that these two characters are just that, 2 different characters.

    If so, then Steamboat Willie may be open to public domain, while Disney holds the rights to Mickey.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 11:36am

      Re:

      First you say

      I think they are referring to Steamboat Willie, who eventually became Mickey Mouse.

      OK, that would make Mickey Mouse a derivative work of Steamboat Willie. But then you go on to say

      The argument could be extended that copyright applies to Mickey Mouse, but not Steamboat Willie, arguing the case that these two characters are just that, 2 different characters.

      So how could they be two separate works if one is a derivative of the other?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 12:26pm

        Re: Re:

        "So how could they be two separate works if one is a derivative of the other?"


        Wouldnt they have to be two SEPERATE works for one to be derivative of another?

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 3:37pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Wouldnt they have to be two SEPERATE works for one to be derivative of another?

          No, just the opposite because the derivative work would contain elements of the other and thus not be completely separate from it.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Chunky Vomit, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 9:30am

    Who pays to use Happy Birthday?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 9:59am

      Re:

      I hadn't realized Happy Birthday was copyrighted, but if it is, any media outlet would need to ask for permission and pay royalties. Be it for a movie or a commercial, if they are using they need to pay for it... it's pretty ridiculous.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        thekingofcheap, Jan 20th, 2010 @ 10:53am

        Re: Re:

        Haven't you ever noticed that TV shows and films rarely sing 'Happy Birthday'? They might sing part of it or hum the tune, whatever can be gotten away with under Fair Use. In fact, there was a whole episode of 30 Rock where the running joke was avoiding the song

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      eleete, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 10:05am

      Re:

      http://www.unhappybirthday.com/

      If you have seen someone singing Happy Birthday in a restaurant, a park, or at a school, you should tell ASCAP so that they can arrange for a license. If you are an offender, you should apologize and offer to pay whatever is due — a nickel, a quarter, a dollar — whatever ASCAP demands.

      Incentive to create ?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        Bergman (profile), Jan 31st, 2014 @ 8:47am

        Re: Re:

        The copyright owner charges $1,500 per performance license for that song.

        But since the financial bligation ncurred that way would be a debt, you could offer payment in the form of 150,000 pennies. Refusing a legal tender payment of a debt discharges the debt in the amount of the offered legal tender payment..

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Ajax 4Hire, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 10:09am

    Happy Birthday copyright

    That is why every restaurant that "celebrates" birthdays have a different "birthday" song so as to not incur the wrath of the copyright police.

    No one officially sings "Happy Birthday" any more out of fear.

    Happy Birthday Sean Connery, actor, born 8/25/1930

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 10:17am

    it was UB!.

    it was UB IWORKS who "invented" Mickey Mouse. Disney just enslaved them both and made them do his evil bidding!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 10:35am

    A lot of TV shows (off the top of my head, Futurama do one) make up new birthday songs to avoid paying the royalties to use "Happy Birthday". Hell, Aqua Teen Hunger Force has an entire episode devoted to Shake trying to create a new birthday song to cash in on the royalties.

    Just out of interest, if it turns out that WB doesn't own the copyright on Happy Birthday, or that Disney doesn't hold the copyright on Steamboat Willie, what happens to the thousands of people who have been forced to pay for their use by WB / Disney in the past?
    Do they just have to grin and bear it, or can they get their money back because Disney/WB had no right to ask for the money in the first place?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 11:01am

    Public Domain = Public Domain

    When it comes to foundational symbols of Culture Happy Birthday should be returned to the public interest/public domain. Mickey Mouse comes in behind it.

    As long as they are subject to copyright law, it is in my view, the legal equivalent of "Robbing from the Public Interest".

    As a visual representation, I see it similar to a city building a 2 mile long park complete with beach and boardwalks. Then some neighborhood clown puts a 8-foot fence around the park and starts charging admission.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 12:35pm

    Boycott Disney

    I refuse to watch, buy, or listen to anything that has to do with the Walt Disney Corporation. In my honest opinion, they are the greediest entertainment company in America. It is my opinion that they've done more to wreck IP law than anyone else...even the RIAA.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 1:11pm

    "OK, that would make Mickey Mouse a derivative work of Steamboat Willie. But then you go on to say...

    So how could they be two separate works if one is a derivative of the other?"

    It's entirely possible. Look at Superman and Superboy. The later is a derivative of the former, but they are considered two entirely separate characters under copyright laws, to the extent that DC Comics stopped using the name Superboy (even going so far as to killing off or changing the name of any character called Superboy), due to a copyright lawsuit by the estate of the character's creator. So far as I know, said lawsuit has not gone to court yet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 3:48pm

      Re:

      The later is a derivative of the former, but they are considered two entirely separate characters under copyright laws...

      Under copyright law for a work to be considered a derivative of another work it must contain elements of that other work. It is therefore not a completely separate work. "Derivative work" is a legal term in copyright law and is not generally defined by the genealogy of comic book characters.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Overcast, Aug 25th, 2008 @ 1:15pm

    I refuse to watch, buy, or listen to anything that has to do with the Walt Disney Corporation.

    Yeah, can't say I argue that anymore. It makes your stomach turn - what they used to be and what they are now.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2009 @ 10:36am

    i still love Mickey Mouse so what they should just give it to disney anyway

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2009 @ 10:41am

    i agree with this passage all the way disney is a wonderful compeny i work there its awsume ppppppppppppppppppppppeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeoooooooooooooooooooooppppppppppppppppppplllllllllll llllllllleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee and i know ccuz i just tured 21 yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa boooooooooooooooooooooyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This