FREE MICKEY: Disney & Copyright

aka, Free Willie

This comic is included in my best-of comic collection Everything You Didn’t Ask For,
available at Amazon CreateSpace, amazon.com, or ETSY.


I did a little research into how much money Disney has earned over the years using public domain stories as sources for their movies. I couldn’t find one handy list, so these figures are cobbled together from a bunch of different sites. These dollar amounts may or may not include overseas sales or DVD/VHS sales, may or may not be ‘adjusted box office’ numbers, and don’t even touch upon merchandising. It’s just to give you a slight glimpse at the huge profits Disney has reaped by creating derivative works based on ‘free’ public domain material. Their true profits are obviously much higher than the numbers listed here:

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (released after Verne’s book passed into public domain) $11.2 million
Aladdin (Arab folk tale from 1001 Arabian Nights) $504 million
Beauty and the Beast (French folk tale) $145 million domestic / $403 million worldwide
Cinderella (French folk tale) $85 million domestic (theatrical)
Hercules (Character in Greek mythology) $253 million
The Jungle Book (released after Kipling’s book passed into public domain) $141.8 million
The Little Mermaid (Fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen) $211 million
Mulan (Chinese folk tale) $120 million domestic / $304 million worldwide
Pocahontas (American folk tale inspired by real event) $141.5 million domestic / $346 million worldwide
The Princess and the Frog (Grimm brothers’ The Frog Prince) $104 million domestic / $267 million worldwide
Robin Hood (English folk tale) couldn’t find any box office info
Snow White (Folk tale collected by Brothers Grimm) Adjusted Gross: $782 million
Sleeping Beauty (Perrault and Basile, Grimm) Adjusted Gross: $521 million
Tangled (Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel, based on a German folk tale) $477 million as of February 6, 2011
Treasure Island (released after Robert Louis Stevenson’s book passed into the public domain) couldn’t find any box office info
and lastly, Tinkerbell, one of Disney’s many mascots, is a public domain character from J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy.

The aim of this post is not to diminish the creative work that Disney has put into these films (seriously, there are some bona fide classics on this list). It’s to simply point out that they (and other corporations like them) need to relinquish their hold on their older works, to give American citizens the same opportunities the Disney Corp. continues to take advantage of. Because before the corporate manipulation of copyright law, it was our right.

To see what other works could have entered the public domain if not for the corporate manipulation of copyright laws, check out the Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain: 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014

17 thoughts on “FREE MICKEY: Disney & Copyright

  1. When the 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoons do become public domain Disney is the only one that can use the mickey mouse public domain character and minnie mouse public domain character because they both have secondary meaning

    Since the year is missing from a 3 copyright disney shorts Mickey Mouse is public domain and maybe Minnie Mouse is also public domain.

    If somebody were to file a lawsuit against Disney claiming that Mickey Mouse is public domain and maybe Minnie Mouse is public domain claiming that Steamboat Willie, The Gallopin’ Gaucho and Plane Crazy because they are missing a year from their title card which is forfeiture in copyright but Disney will be the only one that can use the Mickey Mouse character because Mickey Mouse has secondary meaning and Disney is the only that can use the Minnie Mouse character because Minnie Mouse has secondary meaning.

    Everybody would win because there would most likely be no more copyright extension and Disney is only one that can use the Mickey Mouse public domain character and Minnie Mouse public domain character.

    You might have to have a fund raiser to help raise the money to do this.

    Pinocchio is another public character that Disney used for films.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinocchio_(1940_film)

  2. The Pirates of the Caribbean is an addaptation of several folk tales and at least one book.

    But that´s not relevant, the problem lays in teh moral principles advocated by Disney’s caracters, “Para leer al Pato Donald” (To read Donald Duck) was published last century and offers an interesting aproach to disecting cartoons

  3. There’s nothing the matter with things falling into the public domain. Indeed, that’s how things are supposed to work: materials and ideas enter the public domain with the intent of enriching the general public. That’s a basic societal contract.

    So Disney has every right to profit from materials in the public domain, as do we all: that’s the intent and purpose.

    Copyrights and patents temporarily hold things out of the public domain as encouragement for creators to profit from their works. But this was intended to be of short duration.

    What Disney has done is push to extend the time it takes material to fall into the public domain. This is the crux of the problem – they are preventing the public from being enriched by maintaining the copyright. The original creators (such as Iwerks and Disney) are long dead, and the beneficiaries of this extension are corporations, and the losers the general public.

    That’s the problem with Disney: they’ve perverted the idea of “public domain” to the point where people no longer understand that the ultimate owners of these materials is the public, and have instead acceded copyright in perpetuity to the benefit of corporations.

  4. I kind of agree with Matt here in the sense that Disney does have the right to protect its image copyright, though not the characters and story copyright. For example, in the case of the Robin Hood character, for Disney to be upset that someone took a fox [and similar to their character’s image] and made the character a Robin Hood would be keeping within their rights and interest, but to be suing for anyone to take any other character image and putting him in the Robin Hood suit should be thrown out of court.

  5. Zera: “Most things that are public domain are such because the rights holders died and no one had legal precedent to claim them, or they never existed in the first place such as with the majority of the tales Disney has adapted.”

    I\m afraid that isn’t how copyright works. First, copyright exists from the moment of fixation so what you say about the rights never having existed in the first place is categorically false…Second, rights of a dead author pass to their estate if they haven’t already been assigned elsewhere. So no…That is not how things enter the public domain.

    The truth is that the poster is right. Anyone can appropriate a public domain work. Disney, however, does it in such a way as to effectively remove the work from the public domain to the point where any other adaptation of a fairy tale seems like a knock off. Good thing there is no shortage of fairy tales…

  6. I think your missing a lot with this post here’s why, these stories are still public domain. If you want to make you’re own version of , let’s say the little mermaid you can. You can then make changes to the story to make it your own separate interpretation of the story. You can then copyright the characters images and representations that your portray and market them if you want. There is no reason why after you’ve taken the time effort and work to adapt and portray the characters the way you for them in that form to e considered your property.

    If it was your imagination and work that went into producing and presenting a character in that form it is then you character and you like Disney should fight to preserve the characters in your interpretation as such. Steamboat Willie came purely from Walt’s mind and imagination, he left that legacy to his children who want to preserve it whether for profit, or just for the sake that it doesn’t get hijacked by someone with ill intent towards their fathers creation.

    Most things that are public domain are such because the rights holders died and no one had legal precedent to claim them, or they never existed in the first place such as with the majority of the tales Disney has adapted. Few if any works have ended up public domain at the request of the rights holder in other words and why should Disney’s family start the trend. Another thing if something goes public domain it in it’s whole goes public domain in other word Willie now known as Mickey Mouse goes public domain.

    One more thing I want to bring up is Bill Waterson, the creator and artist who gave us Calvin and Hobbes. He has successfully kept control over his artwork and has kept it from being merchandised, yet even with all that hard work he has had his character hijacked onto illegal bumber stickers that show a complex child character urinating on the logo of his choice. Luckilly he has been able to largely quell the manufacture of these but they still get made and though are less common can still be seen on vehicles around the nation. Disney unlike Bill has the resources to go after anyone trying to demean te image of one of the most beloved characters of all time. Imagine if this Comic was about his work going public domain, don’t you think that since Calvin’s image has already been hijacked and demeaned for profit illegally, it would only get that much worse. eventually the art and legacy the morals and principles that the character stood for would disappear. All people would knows is that Calvin is the kid who pisses on everything, even if it is in direct contrast to the way the character is actually portrayed. I promise you the same if not worse would happen to the image of Mickey as well.

    So I respectfully disagree with your view of what Disney is doing with Steamboat Willie and why.

    On A side note I Wish Some heir to Hans Christian Anderson held the rights to his work then Disney’s film might not have put out a movie who’s message directly contradicts what he was trying to get across…

  7. But weren’t most of those stories like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast etc. created before the concepts of ‘intellectual property rights’, ‘copyright’ and ‘public domain’ were formed?
    The fact that Disney is ‘cutifying’ the world and promoting all sorts of racial and sexual stereotypes is what makes them ‘evil’ (cutely evil though) in my eyes, but the fact that they protect their own copyrights and while taking advantage of stories and characters that are in the public domain doesn’t seem that wrong to me.
    Also, fairy tales and stories from our cultural history usually contain some type of message.
    ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a modern-day animation about a mouse, created by a man less than a hundred years ago. A very specific mouse too – everybody woldwide recognises the image of Mickey Mouse.
    If people wanted to use material from ‘Steamboat Wille’, they wouldn’t take ideas from the storyline but instead actual footage from the cartoon. (Probably because the storyline is ridiculous and thin, centering on animated slapstick antics.)

  8. The above comment from “Uncle B” has torn off my blinders to society’s plight & forever altered my world-view! If only he had a greater platform to express his no-holds-barred truth-telling, the world would awaken from their consumer-slumber and rise up! And say weird racist shit! And use the word “precariat” in every other sentence! Thank God there is at least one American Hero to stand up against the status quo! To author rambling disjointed comments on web comic sites! Wake up, America! WAKE UP

  9. Hell! even Santa Claus is synonymous with Coca Cola! My question: Where have all the Oldsmobiles gone, long time passing? Americana, spread to the world is now dying a tragic death, along with the American worker turned precariat. Time has left even the famous Harley Davidson behind, and the Oriental pocket Rockets abound! Expect a Chinese flogging of whimsy and fairy tales, or even more advanced, worker heroes, and working class mythology, soon at a Wall mart near you!
    The Cheap Oil Era is ending, the great emigrant population landed, established, the Negro slaves set free, made equal, the first great recession realized, the greatest depression on its way. America has been stripped of her resources and worn down to a cusp of what she once was, America has peaked, and now watches as China takes her place, in world economics, in manufacturing, in education, in heavy industry. Hell, America doesn’t even make its own cars any more, and the often touted, All American Chev brand has to cut production because parts are not available from disaster stricken Japan!
    The once well to do American proletariat has been reduced to precariat, often unemployed and without proper medical insurance coverage. The proud manufacturing cities are now filled with precariat, formed from workers who no longer find jobs in America. Are we witnessing the last days, the end-times, of the las, the greatest, Caucasian empire the world will ever know?

  10. Nathalie,
    You clearly don’t understand the point here. It is not the fact that they are using old folk tales that passed into public domain. It’s that Disney is suing the shit out of anybody who also wants to use them claiming it for themselves. In a sense, they are reversing the process of passing into public domain. It would be as if a band produced a track of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” (a song of public domain) and then sued anyone else who played or produced it without their consent.

  11. Plus have you read the Grimm brothers takes, they are horror, not for kids, if anything its given these books more publicity

  12. this is ridiculous, just because a company uses an old story doesn’t mean its stealing it, how many singers sing songs that have been sung by others, doesn’t mean its stealing. Most people know disney films werent stories by disney, but most of them were VERY adapted from the originals, but disney creaters spend the time, effort, employed the people, did the marketing, everything that REALLY gave the movies and shows value,

    get over it guys

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