Copyright Length And The Life Of Mickey Mouse

from the exploring-the-details dept

Last week, we reported on Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s statement that copyright law has become equal to the life of Mickey Mouse. Tom Bell has a couple of recent posts exploring issues related to Mickey Mouse and copyright, that seem worth exploring, given Rep. Lofgren’s recognition of this fact. While he notes (as we have) that there’s ample evidence to suggest that the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons really are in the public domain, he first explores how the length of copyright has followed the age of Mickey Mouse:

James Boyle then weighs in to point out that even that chart exaggerates the true length of copyright over that period of time, as for much of the timeframe shown in the chart content creators (1) had to register to get the copyright and (2) had to regularly renew the copyright to keep it. When you look at the real length of time that works were covered by copyright, it was significantly less than the maximum, because only a small percentage of people even bothered to register copyrights in the first place, and of those that did, only a tiny fraction renewed them. Compare that to today when you get a copyright the second you create something new, and it lasts until 70 years past your death. We’ve gone from the true median length of copyright being zero to well over 100 years in an incredibly short period of time.

And for what purpose?

Bell notes that Disney honestly wouldn’t lose that much even if there were no copyright on the early Mickey Mouse films. Yes, people would be able to do some new things with the Mickey Mouse found in Steamboat Willie (though, not the more modern Mickey Mouse), but Disney would still hold the trademark on the Mouse and could probably stop plenty of uses.

But, really, the bigger point was made by Boyle, via Twitter, where he noted that we are “the first generation to deny our own culture to ourselves and to drive the point home, he notes that no work created during your lifetime will, without conscious action by its creator, become available for you to build upon. For people who don’t recognize the importance of the public domain and the nature of creativity, perhaps this seems like no big deal. But if you look back through history, you realize what an incredibly big deal it is — and how immensely stifling this is on our culture. And then you realize this is all done under a law whose sole purpose is to “promote the progress” and you begin to wonder how this happened. It goes back beyond Mickey Mouse, certainly, but Mickey and Disney have been huge drivers of this attempt to stifle new culture, all in the name of limiting competition for itself. What a shame.

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Companies: disney

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Comments on “Copyright Length And The Life Of Mickey Mouse”

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35 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Disney certainly deserves opprobrium as The Mouse that Ate the Public Domain, but not even Disney could have rammed the CTEA through Congress single-handedly. There were other special interests lining up with them (ASCAP, BMI, MPAA…), mostly clueless Congressmen and Senators (with the exception of the few such as Mary Bono and Senator Hatch, who fully believe the special interests’ tales), and a largely apathetic public. Even the EFF and FSF had little to say in 1998 about the CTEA. They were more focused on the DMCA, which was in Congress at the same time and was signed on the same day as the CTEA.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“They were more focused on the DMCA, which was in Congress at the same time and was signed on the same day as the CTEA.”

First of all, the DMCA issue is important, and suppressing DMCA is a good thing.

Secondly: So they basically made a decoy to take away attention away from something else so that they can pass something else that would further take away the freedoms of Americans. Well, at least more people are switching away from our corrupt mainstream media and over to the Internet and places like Techdirt to get the news, so more overall attention can be diverted towards suppressing governmental tyranny. But you can bet, just like how special interest groups are have managed to control mainstream media to turn it into a medium of misinformation, they will are working hard to do the same exact thing to the Internet.

Designerfx (profile) says:

Re: whoa, good point here

You know, the AC has a point here Mike: as our society is evolving, we’re beginning to route ourselves around some of this mess (and other parts are getting fixed). Internet doesn’t really follow copyright at all, and I’m waiting for the internet archive to just say “screw it, we’re copying anything we can find”…and debating creating an archive for that purpose myself – if it exists, and it’s on the net, it can be copied. (already trying to raise funding)

example: lots of people have boycotted disney because he is anti-semitic (and not just jews)…as characterized on the family guy episode where they wake him from cryo and he asks “are the jews dead yet?” and the answer is “no” and he goes “put me back to sleep again” or something (paraphrase).

as a side issue to this, the music industry as an example is stronger than ever, as a result of that plenty of new material is being created whether or not the old copyright wants to beat its chest and say “you can’t copy this”.

I think of it like this: ownership of land: if everyone brings a little bit of sand(money) together, in one place you can build a country out of the land. However, if one person takes a huge amount of sand for themselves, great, but all they have is an island to their lonesome that nobody can walk to or get to. It eventually stagnates.

I can care less if mickey mouse becomes anything in 20 years. The kids I raise will know how immoral and unethical a large majority of companies are, and be raised to be conscious of what trends are and how to avoid them and define themselves.

Me says:

Re: Re: whoa, good point here

I thought of doing the same with my kids, but my wife is an example of the uncaring public. That these multinational fucking you companies continue with their abusive practices are of no interest to her, no matter what I say. May as well accept the fact that things won’t change and people don’t care. And even for myself, life is too short to worry about copyrights, as I have so many other things I’d like to do.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: whoa, good point here

I’m in the same boat with my GF when it comes to religion/government/companies/etc.

-Honey, the Catholic Church actively smuggled Nazis out of Europe in the ’40s.

-Who is your source for that ridiculous information?

-Well, for starters, Jim Marrs’ books as well as several others, such as “Hitler’s Pope”.

-Yeah but the Church says those books are wrong.

-My books have cited sources and factual information.

-My Church says those facts, not unlike the dinosaurs, are entirely made up.

-[Forehead Slap]

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 whoa, good point here

“What? The Catholic church does not teach that dinosaurs never walked the earth”

Well, they certainly vocalize belief that these beasts walked the earth, though they interpret it most often to be the remains of the giant sea creatures mentioned in Genesis. And on a more anectdotal level, I can assure you that you have priests and deacons in CCD and religios schools that still espouse the belief that dinosaurs are a lie created by satanists and athiests.

“Some Christian demoninations do, but that is no a Catholic belief.”

Again, not anymore, although it WAS until relatively recently. Afterall, the exhistence of an extinct species meant that God would allow one of his creations to die, and that went against Catholic dogma for a very, very long time (see, I DO know what I’m talking about).

On the other hand, that conversation was a fabrication that resembles other real conversations I’ve had with strict religious folks that would rather stick their head in the sand and talk about “faith” rather than THINK about things.

The point remains.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: whoa, good point here

“You know, the AC has a point here Mike: as our society is evolving, we’re beginning to route ourselves around some of this mess (and other parts are getting fixed). Internet doesn’t really follow copyright at all, and I’m waiting for the internet archive to just say “screw it, we’re copying anything we can find”…and debating creating an archive for that purpose myself – if it exists, and it’s on the net, it can be copied. (already trying to raise funding)”

Uhm… there are laws against such things.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Chimp Tail

However, copyright is created when the work is physically created, not conceived or told. So as long as they are the first one to write it down, it is theirs. So, maybe 20% would be theirs. Then there is the copyright on the particulars, and not the general. Like, how the slippers can be copyright while the rest of OZ stories are not. If I understand at least.

Lachlan Hunt (profile) says:

Mike, I’m curious, given how opposed you are to excessivly long copyright terms, like we have now, how long would you consider to be a more reasonable time frame?

Also, I’m wondering if you would choose to limit the copyrights of your own work by voluntarily dedicating them to the public domain after that time?

(I do with my own works, most of which are either dedicated to the public domain immediately or use a very liberal free software licence)

Would you, for example, willingly dedicate all of your techdirt articles to the public domain, say, 20, 30 or 40 years after publication?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Mike, I’m curious, given how opposed you are to excessivly long copyright terms, like we have now, how long would you consider to be a more reasonable time frame?

I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s a topic that deserves research. The problem is that none of these decisions are evidence-based.


Also, I’m wondering if you would choose to limit the copyrights of your own work by voluntarily dedicating them to the public domain after that time?

I’ve already declared that everything I write is in the public domain.

Would you, for example, willingly dedicate all of your techdirt articles to the public domain, say, 20, 30 or 40 years after publication?

Immediately. Everything we write on Techdirt is public domain. Do as you wish with it.

bikey (profile) says:

Disney still owns the trademark… When will this ridiculous ruse be set aside. How can Mickey be a trademark? When you see Mickey on a t-shirt, does that mean Disney made the t-shirt? Or anything it appears on? The purpose of trademark has never been more abused than this (and it has been highly abused). It still stands because it is beyond anyone’s pocketbook to challenge it. That doesn’t make it right, logical, acceptable or ‘legal’. With this reasoning, any copyright could morph into a trademark at the end of its life, no?

Fred McTaker (profile) says:

Disney has lawyers and lobbyists to pay!

Giant Oligarchs like Disney find it more cost effective to keep lawyers and lobbyists on the payroll, rather than let them be contractors or freelancers that can work for anyone else. This creates an incentive to do stupid things, like get failed 70’s one-hit-wonders to extend Copyright for you in Congress, or sue anyone who dares to draw a big circle and two smaller circles together, for Copyright and/or Trademark infringement. Anything less would be considered sunk cost.

About the animated Grimm tales… In both media and technology, the best experimentation in any one area often arises by utilizing a foundation or standards set within other areas, so that they are less distracting to the newer or more experimental form. In animation, well-known fairy tales are often used as the story, so that story can be set aside to let other artistic details have the full concentration. Disney did this well, and his earliest animated films would have risked being less popular in the market than required for breaking even with development costs, had he not avoided the development costs involved with Character and Plot development. These development and public recognition costs were provided in full by Grimms’ tales. All the “original” character development done by Disney in his early years was in the form of animated shorts, because a longer cinematic format would have required too much financial risk on an unproven cast.

Disney the company doesn’t want any other animation studios to benefit from these basic business lessons: borrowing from the Public Domain to fill in for your weaknesses, to better concentrate on your strengths. They want to eliminate the strong base of existing media and writing, so that future animators can’t benefit in the full concentration on their craft, at least not in the same way. This has nothing to do with protecting their brand or works, as they already benefit from being first-to-market in too many regards. This is all about stifling competition in their market of choice: animation. It took a whole change in medium from 2D inks to 3D computers to break that cycle. Then they bought Pixar, and ended that competition as well.

If you read the words of the US founders and those that drafted the original Copyright laws, the Public Domain wasn’t an inconvenient side issue — it was the WHOLE POINT. “Promoting the progress” was almost measured solely in terms of contributions to the Public Domain, especially where fictional works were considered. Registration was required because that was the only way of insuring that a work remained accessible to the public, even after the “owner” or “publisher” failed to keep their own records. They realized that our best inventions never stand alone. Everyone stands on the shoulders of giants — those that came before us and laid the foundation, everything that we now know, yet we didn’t have to discover on our own. Everything builds from something else that came before it. The Public Domain is what came before us, and allows us to grow further in our chosen arts. We are actively denying our own basis for progress, so a theme park owner can keep its lawyers busy.

Miguel says:

Copyright of dead people

The big innovation of copyright law is that it promote progress and innovation with dead people. They assume dead people can create and innovate and because of that there is copyright for 70 years in Spain or 100 years in USA after an author has dead.

Of course, this is a joke. I think as same as Pirate Party in Sweden that copyright law should be good just for 5 years. And after that everything should be free. And as Richard Stallman (copyleft guru) said: proprietary software’s source code should be escrow to avoid EULA (End User License Agreement). http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/pirate-party.html

Otherwise, it would be a shame allow dead people drive our innovation.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Mickey Mouse is a Proxy for Sound Movies.

Mickey Mouse just happened to be the first major cartoon character to come along at the time that sound movies were taking off. The studios had just perfected the system of applying a sound track to the film, and that changed everything.

In the 1920’s, movies were silent. Actors had to be mimes, communicating with stylized hand gestures and facial expressions (eg. Charlie Chaplin). The essential minimum of words were displayed on caption cards (not subtitles). However, every movie theater had to employ musicians as well. A small theater might have only a pianist, but a big-city theater would have a full orchestra. When sound movies came in, all these musicians were out of work, replaced by a photocell, an amplifier, and a loudspeaker. Very few actors made the transition to sound movies. They had been selected for silent movies, without reference to their voices. Some of them had poor speaking voices, and some of them hand speaking voices inappropriate to the kinds of roles they played, and no doubt, some of them couldn’t face starting over again in acting school, doing elocution lessons.

Here is a very partial list of famous actors who got into movies at about the same time as Mickey Mouse: Gene Autry, Lucille Ball, Ingrid Bergman, Humphey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and so on, though the alphabet, down to John Wayne. So many people were retiring that it was a great time to become a movie actor. The 1930’s were the golden age of sound movies. Grown-ups went to the movies, not just kids. Movies at that time were for adults, not in the sense of being R-rated, but in the sense of being about the things adults talk about, not the things that children talk about. Some of the best movies ever made were made within the first ten years or so, before bureaucratic rigidity set in.

So you see, from the movie studio’s point of view, perpetual copyright means as far back as there were movies in the modern sense of the word, ie. from 1925-1930 onwards. Hollywood is terrified at the prospect of having to compete with the best movies ever made. For a writer, one of the givens has always been that every used bookstore, and even every church thrift store, had a more or less unlimited supply of all the classic authors, at twenty-five or fifty cents a book, and that a writer had to compete with the best that had ever been written. The Gutenberg Project is simply a step further in the same direction. For a writer, that is simply the way things are. Now it’s the movie industry’s turn.

Elroy Serrao (user link) says:

Copyright Length

Mike,
Came across your article as I was scouring the web for information on how copyright length evolved over time. What astounds me is how the length of the copyright went from 14 years in 1710 in the UK, to the international accepted “life of author + 50 years” today. If anything, I feel that the length of the copyright should have decreased since economically you can profit faster today from your work than you could in 1710 (even after adjusting for inflation). Whats your take on this ?

tracyanne (profile) says:

Copyright curve

Well I get my operating system and software both for free (no cost) and for free (I’m free to use it as I wish… no EULA). So I’m part way there, probably all the way there, given that it’s probably not possible to make access free of charge, nor possible to make the hardware itself available free of charge.

I had to answer this oldy as well.

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