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LA Times Asks If Disney Holds Copyright to Earliest Mickey Mouse

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The Los Angeles Times investigates the possibility that the Walt Disney Company might not actually own the copyright to Mickey Mouse (free registration required), due to a strange collection of circumstances around the copyright notice in “Steamboat Willie” and the state of copyright law in effect at the time the short was released.

The inconsistency was first noted by former Disney researcher Gregory S. Brown, whose unsuccessful attempt to capitalize on the murky copyright status of a Disney cartoon led to the discovery of the “Steamboat Willie” copyright notice, which lists 3 names in the copyright notice. Under the law in effect at the time, the Copyright Act of 1909, any of the three (Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, and the Cinephone Powers System) could claim ownership, thus nullifying all claims. Brown’s discovery was picked up by law journals and students, although their claims attracted little attention outside of law school circles and, in at least one instance, drew a harsh threat of legal action from Disney.

The article also notes how the Disney corporation (which declined to be interviewed for the article) has pursued copyright claims for other properties such as Bambi and Peter Pan that are often contrary to the legal stances it takes towards its own properties.

Regardless of the state of Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse, the character is still protected by trademark laws, and Michael J. Madison, associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, points out in the article that, “Disney has enough ammunition on its side to dissuade all but the most well-financed competitor, or any but the most committed public-interest advocates, from challenging Mickey.”

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay