Earlier this week, the 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—was 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 from 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.
Q: How does it feel to have your sentence extended by two decades?
A: How do you think it feels? For almost 70 years, I've only been allowed to do 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 something 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 of the comic book, they issued a summons and took us all to court for trademark violation and copyright infringement.
Q: And they never published another issue?
A: 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.
Q: Some might say that it's perfectly legitimate for Disney to own you—not just now, but in perpetuity. After all, they created you.
A: Created me? [An enormous cartoon spit-take follows.]
Did you like that? It's my Daffy Duck imitation.
Q: Very nice. I didn't know you were familiar with the Warner Brothers characters.
A: 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 it on their plantation. 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.
A: My first cartoon short, Steamboat Willie, was a direct parody of Keaton's movie Steamboat Bill, Jr. On the very first page of the script, it says, "Orchestra starts playing opening verses of Steamboat Bill." I remember what Eldred's lawyer Lawrence Lessig said when he read that: "Try doing a cartoon take-off of one of Disney, Inc.'s latest films with an opening that copies the music."
So yeah, they created me. But they don't want to let other people build on me when they make their own creations, the way they did when I was born. And now I'm locked up for another stinking 20 years! Do you have any idea what it's like to have to greet kids at Disneyland every single day, always smiling, never slipping off for a cigarette?
Q: So what comes next?
A: If the courts won't help us, we can always go back to Congress and try to repeal the Bono Act outright. Doesn't seem likely to happen, but I suppose we should try it.
Beyond that, all I can think of is civil disobedience. Disney says I'm its property, and that any unauthorized use of me is infringement, theft, plagiarism. I say, Don't mourn, plagiarize! Work me into every creative act that you can, and damn the legal consequences! You know, like you're doing right now.
Q: Come again?
A: This interview. It's an unauthorized use of Mickey Mouse, a copyrighted character owned by the Disney Corporation.
Q: This is a parody, Mickey. It's protected by the Fair Use doctrine.
A: So was Air Pirates Funnies, and they still dragged them into court. And it's only gotten worse since then. It's so easy to create and distribute things digitally these days, so the big entertainment combines are in a panic, sending out cease-and-desist letters left and right. Doesn't matter if it's an open-and-shut case of Fair Use—the cost of a court case is disincentive enough.
Q: Hey. This isn't really Mickey Mouse, people. His name is—uh, I think it's Bruce.
A: Sometimes they make a threat, and sometimes they let something slide. You never know what they're gonna go after. But don't let that stop you! Civil disobedience requires courage.
Q: He's not even a mouse. He's some sort of marsupial.
A: [Sighs.] You're a sellout, Walker.
Q: I've got responsibilities, Mick—um, Bruce.
A: God, you disgust me. I'm looking at another 20 years on the inside, and you can't throw one little pebble at the company that's keeping me out of the public domain?
At this point, three Disney bounty hunters entered the bar and seized Mickey. An intense struggle reportedly ensued, but our correspondent missed it, opting instead to crawl out the men's room window.
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