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.