Early Disney Legal Department Revealed To Be A Mickey Mouse OperationThe LAT has a fascinating story today about Gregory S. Brown, a 51-year-old former Disney researcher who's lived in the same one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood for the last 20 years. Brown had once tried and failed to take over Harvey Comics. In doing his research, he discovered an old Ghostbusters lawsuit in which an overlooked copyright claim had allowed Fatso, Casper's sidekick and a dead-ringer for the movie's logo, to lapse into the public domain. Armed with his new knowledge of such loopholes, he returned to the Disney vaults to find similar cases. A failure to renew the copyright on the 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Mad Doctor led to a business selling knockoff cels from that film. Disney sued him, and won a $500,000 settlement. Now something of an early-animation copyright expert, Brown went back to the stacks to research his defense; it was then that he learned something truly astonishing: Thanks to some shoddy legalese, just about anyone could move Disney's cheese.
It was on the title card at the beginning of a "Steamboat Willie" cartoon that had just been re-released on a 1993 LaserDisc honoring Mickey's 65th birthday. It said in full:
"Disney Cartoons Present A Mickey Mouse Sound Cartoon Steamboat Willie A Walt Disney Comic by Ub Iwerks Recorded by Cinephone Powers System Copyright MCMXXIX." For Brown, it was as if the glass slipper fit him perfectly. The key was location of the word "copyright" in relation to the name "Walt Disney." There were two other names listed in between — Cinephone and Disney's top studio artist, Ub Iwerks. Arguably, any one of the three could have claimed ownership, thereby nullifying anyone's claim under arcane rules of the Copyright Act of 1909.
Disney's lawyers dismiss the claim as "frivolous," though there's good reason to believe Brown might be on to something, so long as he continues to plead his case in public and isn't soon discovered at the bottom of It's a Small World asphyxiated with Pluto's collar. The very thought of a world in which there is free Mickey for all—fine, not the familiar Sorcerer's Apprentice-looking Mickey, but the far more rodent-like version steering the tugboat—fills us with hope. We pray Disney relents and frees the famous critter from his glue-trap-like copyright constraints, allowing him to stand alongside Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty, and that sailor on the Cracker Jack boxes as a universally recognized symbol of American can-do spirit—his smiling face adorning everything from Bangkok sex emporiums to Al Qaeda bowling team T-shirts.