Mickey Mouse Clubbed

Disney's cartoon rodent speaks out on the Eldred decision.

In January, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 -- so named in honor of the late Rep. Bono, and not because it extended his copyright terms -- is constitutional. Prior to the Bono Act, an individually owned work was protected for the creator's life plus 50 more years; corporate-owned copyrights lasted a flat 75 years. The law extended both timespans by two decades, prompting a legal challenge by Eric Eldred, a bibliophile in New Hampshire who wanted to put digitized editions of old books online.

When the Court ruled against Eldred, the Disney Corporation issued a collective sigh of relief. Before the Bono Act passed, Mickey Mouse was set to enter the public domain in 2004, with his best-known animated pals following shortly afterward. One reason Disney put its weight behind the 1998 legislation was to keep Mickey and the gang on the plantation; Eldred's backers subsequently adopted "Free the Mouse" as an unofficial slogan.

Mickey's own reaction to the decision was less enthusiastic. Telling his keepers that he was going on an "ice run for the boss," the mouse made his way to a dive bar a few miles outside Disneyland, where he gave reason an exclusive interview.

Reason: How does it feel to have your sentence extended by two decades?

Mickey: How do you think it feels? For almost 70 years, I've been allowed to do only what the Disney people say I can do. Sometimes someone comes up with a new idea, and I think to myself, "Great! Here's a chance to stretch myself!" But of course they won't let me leave the reservation. If I do, they send out their lawyers to bring me home.

In 1971, for instance, Dan O'Neill got me a part in a comic book called Air Pirates Funnies. It was great: I got to have sex, I got to use drugs, I got to explore the whole underground comix scene. It was liberating. Well, of course Disney complained. They said -- this is a direct quote -- that O'Neill's parody was tarnishing my "image of innocent delight." After two issues, they took us all to court for trademark violation and copyright infringement.

reason: And they never published another issue?

Mickey: Of course not. I don't think you realize how tight the clamps on me are. If I so much as flicker on a TV screen in the background of a documentary, Disney can tell the filmmakers, "Either scramble that image or pay us for permission to use it." And the courts will allow it.

Reason: Some might say that it's perfectly legitimate for Disney to own you -- not just now, but in perpetuity. After all, they created you.

Mickey: Created me? [An enormous cartoon spit take follows.]

Did you like that? It's my Daffy Duck imitation.

Reason: Very nice. I didn't know you were familiar with the Warner Brothers characters.

Mickey: Poor bastards. They're gonna be locked up even longer than I am. I guess if Chuck Jones were still around to direct their cartoons, they might not mind. Instead, they have to do those stupid commercials with Michael Jordan.

Anyway. Yeah, Walt Disney created me, but he didn't create me out of nothing. Look at my skin. Look at my face. Look at this glove. I'm straight out of the minstrel show tradition -- which makes this whole "ownership" business stick in my craw even more.

I'm also Buster Keaton.

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