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.

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Companies: disney

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Comments on “Turns Out Disney Might Not Own The Copyright On Early Mickey Mouse Cartoons”

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22 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

“…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.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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?

eleete (user link) says:

Re: 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 ?

Anonymous Coward says:

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?

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

“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.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

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