45 Years, 45 Days: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture

For 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

Writing in Reason’s December 2004 issue, Bob Levin explained why a decades-old copyright case continues to raise troubling implications for freedom of speech:

Draw a mouse, go to jail. That, it seemed, was the ultimate conclusion of a case that wended its way throughout the 1970s from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to the Supreme Court and back. In an age of easy and ubiquitous copying, that case matters more now than ever.

On one side was the plaintiff, Walt Disney Productions. Its good-hearted, uplifting, family-oriented fare drew upon values--patriotism and Puritanism, consumerism and conformity--that the cultural revolution of the '60s had called into question, and fed those values back to a public in need of reassurance, earning it, back then, $750 million a year.

On the other side was the defendant, cartoonist Dan O'Neill. His career's trajectory, though mostly downward, was, in its commitment to a free-spirited, convention-defying, bluenose-shocking, light-out-for-the-territory view of the personal and public good, just as resolutely mythic-American as Disney's....

As the '60s revolution wore on, O'Neill decided that what America truly needed was the destruction of Walt Disney. So...he rounded up a ragtag band of rogue cartoonists who called themselves the Air Pirates, after a group of evildoers who had bedeviled Mickey Mouse in the 1930s. In 1971 they produced two issues of an underground comic book in which a number of Disney characters, particularly Mickey, engaged in very un-Disneylike behavior, particularly sex.

In 1979 O'Neill stood before the bar, 38 years old, unemployed, with total assets of $7, a 1963 Mercury convertible, a banjo, and the baggy gray suit he was wearing. Disney, which already had a $190,000 judgment against him, sought to have him fined another $10,000 and imprisoned for six months.

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