At the beginning of 2019, all published works from 1923 entered the public domain for the first time. Public domain refers to works that are available for public use without copyright or trademark — owned by no one. I could write a trashy romance novel about a love affair between Count Dracula and Sherlock Holmes and no one can sue me for copyright. But public domain has become a difficult subject, as a result of Disney’s efforts.
The concept of copyright in the U.S. has been around for some time, starting in 1790 when the Founding Fathers established a 14-year term for copyrighted works. While copyright laws can be beneficial to protecting the works of emerging artists, corporations like Disney have taken things too far. Disney waltzed onto the scene and has successfully extended the copyright term twice for the sake of Mickey Mouse. The Copyright Act of 1976 says works would lose their copyright 50 years after the death of the author — or 75 years in the case of corporate or anonymous authorship. In 1998, “Steamboat Willie’s” Mickey Mouse was about to enter the public domain again. Disney once again lobbied Congress to extend the copyright term, and former President Bill Clinton signed the bill. Works created between 1923 and 1977 now have a term of 95 years. That means nothing created after 1922 has yet entered the public domain. From 2006 until now, Disney has lobbied for 19 copyright bills.
This extended control over public domain has suffocated the creative world. Public domain serves an important purpose: people build on each others’ ideas. With initial copyright laws, the original creator had enough time to make a healthy profit off their work and claim ownership before leaving it to the world, not necessitating their descendants battle for their creations, hissing at whoever comes close to touching it.
Disney’s hypocrisy about creative ownership is exceptionally visible with the film that put Mickey Mouse on the screen: 1928’s “Steamboat Willie.” It was the debut animation of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, which now appears at the beginning of almost every classic Disney movie. It was a milestone for animation; lauded for its synchronized sound, the film made an enormous splash in U.S. pop culture and is revered as one of the greatest animated films of all time. Disney’s creation is based on Buster Keaton’s movie “Steamboat Bill Jr.” in 1928, which itself was named after Arthur Collins’ 1911 song “Steamboat Bill.” That is the point of creative freedom: to build on ideas and share in creativity. In their quest to retain ownership of their founding mouse, they removed Keaton and Collins from the narrative, withholding any credit and leaving them out of the work that was inspired by their efforts.
There are many more works that have been Disney-fied to a dazzling movie. Among their reinterpreted stories, the princesses are most prevalent. Cinderella’s first variation as the rags-to-riches, slipper-centric romance is credited to the ancient Greek geographer Strabo of a Greek courtesan Rhodopis marrying the Pharaoh of Egypt. Sleeping Beauty was first seen in the anonymous prose romance Perceforest from the 14th century, then published posthumously by Giambattista Basile in 1634 and also adapted by Charles Perrault in 1697 and Brothers Grimm in 1812.
These are all famous Disney-produced and owned films made from characters and stories in the public domain. Those film depictions, however, are not in the public domain and are the property of Disney. Disney has immensely profited off other ideas and claimed them for their own. They prevent the same creative process from happening with their massive and all-encompassing media influence. I only knew about the Brothers Grimm because I’m a nerd who read the Grimm Fairy Tales at age 12.
“Steamboat Willie” is slated to enter the public domain on Jan. 1, 2024. There is currently no report of efforts to extend the copyright term again, but Disney is expected to fight back against any such efforts. Could that day be the end of an era?
We absorb things from the screen or from the pages in our hands, and if we love them we try to create our own versions of them. If there’s no chance for people to mix up different ideas and rework them, we kill creative craft. Disney clinging on to the copyright of ideas that came before their movies is hypocritical. Disney’s mission statement says they “seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences.” Soon that well will run dry and they will regret their greedy desire to control the whole media market. Don’t tie the world’s hands with the mouse’s tail. Let creativity flow, unstoppered and unhindered.
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