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August 22, 2008

The Lobbyists Are Already Salivating [10:01 am]

‘Cuz you *know* Disney will do everything it can to get the law changed to avoid even the possibility of losing this property — a very detailed look at the history of a copyright question raised by ambiguities in early Disney notices: Disney’s rights to young Mickey Mouse may be wrong (pdf)

As Mickey turns 80 this fall, the most beloved rodent in show business is widely regarded as a national treasure. But he is owned lock, stock and trademark ears by the corporate heirs of his genius creator, Walt Disney.

Brand experts reckon his value to today’s Walt Disney Co. empire at more than $3 billion. Acts of Congress have extended Mickey’s copyright so long that they provoked a Supreme Court challenge, making Mickey the ultimate symbol of intellectual property.

All signs pointed to a Hollywood ending with Disney and Mickey Mouse living happily ever after — at least until a grumpy former employee looked closely at fine print long forgotten in company archives.

Film credits from the 1920’s revealed imprecision in copyright claims that some experts say could invalidate Disney’s long-held copyright, though a Disney lawyer dismissed that idea as “frivolous.”

Although studio executives are not yet hurling themselves from the parapets of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, the unexpected discovery raises an intriguing question: Is it possible that Mickey Mouse now belongs to the world — and that his likeness is usable by anybody for anything?

[...] Copyright questions apply to an older incarnation, a rendition of Mickey still recognizable but slightly different. Original Mickey, the star of the first synchronized sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” and other early classics, had longer arms, smaller ears and a more pointy nose.

The notion that any Mickey Mouse might be free of copyright restrictions is about as welcome in the Magic Kingdom as a hag with a poisoned apple. Yet elsewhere, especially in academia, the idea has attracted surprising support.

This is an appropriate place to cite the final posting from the Patry Copyright Blog. As he puts it:

This leads me to my final reason for closing the blog which is independent of the first reason: my fear that the blog was becoming too negative in tone. I regard myself as a centrist. I believe very much that in proper doses copyright is essential for certain classes of works, especially commercial movies, commercial sound recordings, and commercial books, the core copyright industries. I accept that the level of proper doses will vary from person to person and that my recommended dose may be lower (or higher) than others. But in my view, and that of my cherished brother Sir Hugh Laddie, we are well past the healthy dose stage and into the serious illness stage. Much like the U.S. economy, things are getting worse, not better. Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners. Like Humpty-Dumpty, the copyright law we used to know can never be put back together again: multilateral and trade agreements have ensured that, and quite deliberately.

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