The Wonderful World Of Disney Hypocrisy

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In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act was being debated by the U.S. Congress, which lengthened the amount of years before a copyrighted material would enter into the public domain.  The law would extend the life of a copyright for works of a corporate nature from 70 years to 95 years!

The law was known as the “Sonny Bono Term Extension Act”, but was pejoratively called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”, because The Disney Corporation was the biggest driving force behind the Lobby.  Why?  Because Mickey Mouse was nearing the 70 year mark and would soon enter the public domain.  Many other early Disney characters would soon follow, as their copyright expiration dates were closing fast.  This would be a huge financial blow to the Disney brand, so it would reason that they would lead this crusade.

Congress awarded the extension in 1998, and I’m quite sure that Disney’s 6.3 million dollars in campaign donations between 1997-1998 had no bearing on the decision.  Congress overstepped its power and ruled in favor of corporate welfare rather than their sworn duty to the promotion of “progress”, as written in the Constitution Article 1, Section 8:

The Congress shall have Power… To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

I might not have a problem with Disney’s action, had their corporation built its vast empire on originally created material.  The fact that Disney used prior works as a springboard to success envelops this all in the stench of hypocrisy.  The Disney company had a moderate level of success with the original characters featured in early black and white short films.  Disney did not really hit stride until making full length animated features.  Giving credit where due, “Fantasia” was original Disney characters and story line, if you want to call it that.  “Fantasia” was literally a series of short animated stories edited together to a soundtrack made up of mostly public domain music for which Disney paid no license (with the exception of “The Rite Of Spring”).

From there on, most Disney feature animations would be based on stories that had since fallen into public domain.  Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and many other princess stories, were based on age-old fairy tales that Disney was not required to pay license or royalties for.  Later works would include children’s literature like: “Pinocchio”, “Alice in Wonderland” , “The Jungle Book” (released just one year after Kipling’s copyright expired),– All in the public domain!   Disney didn’t pay a cent for story license, yet reaped many millions.  The “Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” and all features made under the reign of Michael Eisner, would be from public domain.  Of course, Disney touted “The Lion King” as an original story.  Not!   Besides being an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” told through a pride of lions, there are way too many similarities between The Lion King and a 1960s Japanese animated series called “Kimba the White Lion”.  Though Disney claims these a coincidence, they would sue anyone else into oblivion if they came half as close to one of their properties.  The clip below illustrates just how “original” Disney’s “The Lion King” really is. 

Disney has had few original productions not based on time-tested classics,  and when they do, they often flopped big time.  The “Aristocats” would be an example.

(Do not confuse Disney with Pixar.  Pixar is the brain-child of John Lasseter and had its own talented writing staff, who penned awesome original stories.  Disney was only Pixar’s distributer, until they bought them in Jan. 25, 2006.  Pixar is still Lasseter’s project, with its own writers.)

Hey, Disney, have you ever heard of “sending the elevator back down”?.  They built an empire off of other people’s intellectual properties and then sue daycare centers, who dare place any Disney image in the classrooms or playgrounds (real case, Hallandale, Fl, 1989).  Then Disney has the audacity to purchase copyrights on the characters they liberated from the public domain.  Yes, they didn’t create the characters, but they now own the iconic image that they created to represent them.  Anything even remotely resembling them, they will attack with the ferocity of a pack of hyenas.

During the airing of The Oscars in 1989, a musical skit was performed with a singing Snow White (portrayed by singer-dancer Eileen Bowman).  Disney actually sued the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences for having a character wearing a similar wig and costume to the Disney movie version.  The character named Snow White has origins as far back as the middle ages, yet Disney thinks they now own her.  When it was discovered that someone else (other than Disney) probably held the copyright for Bambi, Disney began throwing out ridiculous legal concepts to come up with anything that would get the copyright out of the hands of this other potential owner — including the claim that Bambi was in the public domain AND that Disney owned the copyright to it.

No matter how long something has lived in the public domain, if Disney makes an animated version of it, it now belongs to them.  So, if Disney makes an animated version of the Bible or Koran, they will own those characters as well.  I can see the headlines now: “Disney versus the State of Islam over rights to Muhammad”, followed by images of planes crashing into Cinderella’s Castle in Orlando.

Of course Disney is not as adamant about paying royalties as they are at collecting.  Disney attempted to stiff singer Peggy Lee for the royalties for her voice work in “Lady and The Tramp” when it was released for home video in 1987.  Disney claimed that her original contract, signed in 1952, which gave her the right to participate in “transcriptions for sales to the public”, did not specifically cover “home video” sales.  The idea of home video technology did not exist in 1952!  Thankfully, the courts ruled in favor of the seventy year old Lee.

Our nation’s founders did not consider inventions and artistic expression as property, but as public goods to which exclusive rights might be granted for a limited time as purely a means of incentive for production.  Thomas Jefferson expressed  this sentiment in a letter written in 1813:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me . . . .

Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody.” – Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison went as far as to consider such copyright hoarding as a monopoly and we all know how the framers of our Constitution felt concerning monopolies.  Jefferson wrote:

Monopolies may be allowed to persons for their own productions in literature, and their own inventions in the arts, for a term not exceeding ___ years, but no longer term, and for no other purpose.” — Thomas Jefferson.

The blank in the quotation was left to be filled in later by an agreed upon vote, but certainly not the 95 years Congress has now awarded.  For more information on Jefferson’s attitude concerning copyrights read here.

Jefferson, being a literary writer, inventor and musician himself, reluctantly believed that the creator of an intellectually property should be rewarded for an acceptable time, just to give incentive to create.  But he also felt that ownership should not transfer to family or companies for eternally long periods.  He knew that this promotes hoarding of intellectual properties, only for sale or view for the wealthy.  These works need to eventually become part of history and education FOR ALL!

What if Mozart, Da Vinci, Dickens, Shakespeare and the likes, were still privately held?  How would people of little means gain access and knowledge?  It is not in the best interest of a society to withhold knowledge and art from those of lesser means.  Can we see even Disney’s classic works for free?  Hardly.  This is exactly what our founders did not want.

It is obviously Disney’s intention that their properties NEVER fall into public domain.  You can bet that Disney will again barter congress for more extensions once their new deadline comes to term, thereby preventing anyone else from duplicating what Walt did.  Is this fair?  Even Shakespeare built on the prior works of Holingshead’s Chronicles of England (1573).  Had these idiotic perpetual copyright extensions existed then, we would not have Shakespeare or many other great works that have help the “progress” of society.

If Disney ‘s 75 year old creations were rightfully allowed to fall into public domain, then other artists could use that art to build new forms of art from it, just as Disney did with old fairy tales and children’s literature.  And, what if the creators of all those fairy tales and children’s literature would have bought government favor to extend the copyrights on their work?  They would have charged Disney huge license fees and royalties to use them or refused usage out right (like Disney often does).  Of course Walt could not have afforded the license fees as a start-up animation company.  With Walt being a man of few original ideas, the Disney company would be just another hack animation company publishing cheap Flash animated shorts on YouTube and history would be forever changed.  How is Disney’s greed now affecting the future?


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10 Responses to The Wonderful World Of Disney Hypocrisy
  1. Krystal Williams
    January 14, 2012 | 9:56 am

    Well, you are a man of many insights, aren’t you? Had anyone else tackled this topic, I might not have read it. But your writing flows so well, and your argument is very well-developed.

    Not to mention that INCRIMINATING video! Wow!

    Insightful post off the beaten path! I learned something new here! ;-)

    • Wolverine
      January 14, 2012 | 9:01 pm

      Thanks, Krystal. I hope to have more surprises in the future. Livivng in Orlando, I am all too familiar with Disney.

  2. new
    March 12, 2012 | 11:06 am

    Hi there! This post could not be written much better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept preaching about this. I’ll forward this information to him. Pretty sure he will have a great read. I appreciate you for sharing!

    • Wolverine
      March 12, 2012 | 6:19 pm

      Thanks. I am a freelance artist/animator and Disney was one of my clients for more than 20 years. Their reputation is quite a facade. I have seen the inner workings and the way they treat their employees, and even worse, their competitors. I also contracted to Universal, and Disney used their financial influence with the Florida government to make Universal’s attempt to operate in Orlando a nightmare.

      Thanks again for the comment. I hope your previous roommate enjoys the article.

  3. Posky
    December 17, 2012 | 12:09 am

    I’ve stumbled across your posting entirely by accident but couldn’t agree more. I’ve read up on this subject quite a bit and the hypocrisy is absolutely unparallelled, not to mention somewhat appalling. It’s also upsetting that this all comes down to a matter of money. You would hope a studio that creates “art” would be a lot less interesting in stifling it.

    • Wolverine
      December 17, 2012 | 2:17 am

      Thanks, Posky. The way that Disney continues to buy up more and more IPs, like the recent purchase of the “Star Wars” franchise, makes them even more frightening – seeing the way that they horde art and intellectual properties. What Monsanto is to agriculture, Disney is becoming to the entertainment world. The worst part is how they continue to maintain such a high moral facade in the minds of most Americans, when they are really the epitome of greed and everything wrong in Corporatism.

      • Mickey
        March 3, 2016 | 10:26 am

        Congress should kill Disney’s corporate charter (Disney: The king of copyright infringement since 1901) if they haven’t already done so.

        • Wolverine
          April 2, 2016 | 7:04 pm

          Yes, Congress should have never granted Disney an extension. How is this fair to all of the other properties which fell into the public domain prior to Disney having the law changed? Disney is always sure to grease the palms of both parties since many of their core characters would soon fall into public domain following Mickey, who should have already been in the public domain. Walt built his empire by using characters which he did not have to license since they followed the rules and had fell into the public domain.

          It’s all quite complicated, but a corporate work can now have an extension up to 120 years from creation. You can read more about the Copyright Term Extension Act here:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act

          I guess Disney will continue to keep their core characters from becoming public domain. I’m not sure how long they can keep it up, but I imagine they will continue to fight as long as they can. I can see why the Disney corporation will continue to fight this as long a they possibly can, because anyone will be able to sell merchandise with Disney characters, so their profits and stocks would take a huge drop the day all of the core characters finally fall into the public domain.

          It is in the best interest of the arts for these properties to reasonably fall into public domain so that future artists can build works from that foundation, just as Walt did when he used characters from old tales and stories to build new works of art which are cherished by many children who grew up with these works.

          It is those assholes in Congress who were responsible for doing the right thing, but chose to do the wrong thing. I cannot imagine what would happen to the Disney corporate stocks the day all of their characters start to fall into the public domain, one after the next, but it is only fair since their entire corporation was build on the usage of public domain characters which proceeded them. We can see that Congress will not decide these things in favor of the arts, but with corporate favoritism.

  4. Manuel
    March 31, 2016 | 12:53 pm

    Freelance Ilustrators

    I have a question.
    I see thousand of freelance ilustrators selling digital cliparts (In ETSY and similar shops..) of re-interpretations of old public domain fairy tales which means re-interpretations of Disney characters. They are not the same, but inspired in (here you can choose) Old public domain fairy tales or Disney re-interpretations.

    Is this illegal? Can Disney go against this thousand of freelance ilustrators selling their own inspired original work? Do Disney blocked the copyright for this creations too?

    The freelance ilustratiors obviously sell their original work to people to use to print the cliparts on any surface they wish…. Does this means that the one who legaly buy from one of those freelance ilustrators is infringin any copyright too?

    Thanks!

    • Wolverine
      April 2, 2016 | 7:56 pm

      Hi Manuel. Thanks for writing. Most of Disney’s characters based on children’s literature had been in the public domain for many years before Disney used them for feature films. There were some questions about Bambi, I believe, but the decision ended up going in Disney’s favor (of course).

      Disney owns the rights to all of the core characters which Walt created, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofey, etc… These are the characters Disney was trying to protect with the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. Mickey Mouse was about to fall into the public domain, meaning that Donald, Goofey, Pluto and all of the rest would soon follow, nearly having a character per year become public property. At that point, anyone could print merchandise with these characters without having to pay any license to the Disney corporation.

      This act screamed out with Disney’s hypocrisy, since Walt had used many characters, license free, which had fallen into the public domain to build his empire. At some point, when a reasonable amount of financial return has been granted to the creator and family, the works should return to the public domain so future artist can build upon these works, just as Walt did. No one else had complained about the amount of time granted by Congress. It didn’t seem to be a problem until all of Disney’s original characters were in danger of going public.

      There would be little motivation for an artist to create works just to make Disney richer. I seriously doubt Walt would have chose to use any of those characters if he had to pay huge license to the existing family member of the creator. I think that Disney’s works have returned plenty enough profit at this point. The term seemed like a fair enough period of time before Disney’s characters were nearing the deadline.

      All of the characters that you are referring to were characters from children’s literature (Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, Treasure Island, The Jungle Book and many more, had fallen into the public domain, so Disney paid no license to use them. I am not a copyright attorney, but as far as my understanding, Disney does own the copyright on their interpretation of these characters, but not the character itself. Any artist is free to reinterpret these characters without paying license to anyone.

      This was apparent when Disney attempted to sue the Oscars for dressing a character up to look like the Disney interpretation of Snow White. Had the Oscars used a completely different interpretation of Snow White, Disney would have been powerless to do anything about it. Problem is, the Disney interpretation of these characters have become so iconic, most people would not recognize them in any other costume, hairstyle, etc..

      You are free to use any of these characters as long as it does not look too close to Disney’s look for that character. It is really unfair for Disney to play by a different set of rules, when you think of all the hundreds of characters which have become public property over the centuries. Disney should have to play by the same rule. Of course they are going to protect their interest, which is why Congress should have done the right thing and refused to give the extension. Disney will never let those character become public as long as they can keep Congress in their pockets. It is not best for the arts. If copyright extensions would have been granted to all of these characters which Walt used to get his start-up company off the ground, Disney would not exist as we know it today.

      Many people have the wrong idea when it comes to copyrights and what it protects. You cannot copyright an idea, nor the name of the character. A copyright really only protects your interpretation and look of the character. A copyright is not as powerful as a trademark. A trademark is registered with the patent and trademark office and must actually have been in use and have some fame or notoriety before it can be registered. A copyright is registered with the Library Of Congress and a copyright becomes protected the minute an artist completes the work. The work must then be registered only to prove the date in which it was created. A copyright violation becomes a civil matter, but is extremely expensive and time consuming to pursue since it is a federal civil case and some damages must be proven in order to award revenues which were lost due to the violation.

      For this reason, it is really not worth pursuing a copyright violation if there were not some substantial damages. In the case of Disney, it might be the money lost in merchandise sales because of pirated merchandise being sold. A lot of people think that an artist can pursue a copyright, just because someone is using their property. I doubt that even Disney would pursue any lawsuit which did not cause a substantial amount of damage, other than to serve a Cease and Desist letter.

      To answer your question, it is perfectly legal for any artist to sell their own interpretation of these iconic characters which have been in the public domain for some time. Disney can only protect their own interpretation of these characters. Neither party, the artist, nor those buying the prints are violating any copyrights. I hope this helps.

      Copyright laws are not extremely complicated, but they are commonly misunderstood and does not offer much protection to the common artist, nor anyone who cannot afford to defend such an expensive case, unless someone has made a tremendous amount of money off of a work which you have protected by a copyright registration. An idea cannot be copyrighted, so the damage would have to be from the usage of a character or characters which are visibly similar to the registered character. This is why the registration of a copyright must be accompanied by illustrations, renders, costumes or any other visual medium which can be used to determine whether the usage is a violation.

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