Walt Disney first studio

Walt Disney: Copyright, Public Domain and Double Standards

Disney studios
Home of Walt Disney’s First Studio in Los Feliz. Now a print shop.

Perhaps one of the greatest creators of our time was Walt Disney.  From his humble beginnings as a cartoonist staying with his uncle in Los Feliz he moved forward to create an empire that has brought joy to billions of people around the world.

But many are upset with a double standard Disney has when it comes to copyright and use of works in the pubic domain.  Critics state that while many, if not a majority of the works attributed to Disney were built from works  taken from the public domain, the empire has made sure their own works don’t enter the public domain.

Walt Disney
Sign in window of Los Feliz print shop that was once the home of Walt Disney’s first studio

This double standard when it comes to copyright is not unique to Disney.  It’s typical of most of the large movie studios, publications, corporations and tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Instagram.  In layman terms, Disney and the other corporations seem to believe they should have free access to the works created by others while enforcing their own copyright protection to the full legal extent of the law.

Disney comes up as a poster boy because so many of the Disney characters and films were based on public domain works.  Yet, at the same time Disney lobbyists are accused of lobbying Congress to extend the length of time a work has copyright protection each time the Micky Mouse character is about to enter the public domain.  It’s called the Micky Mouse Curve and plotted on a graph you see new copyright laws extending the time period for copyright protection each time Micky is about to become public property.

Among the Disney works that are based on author’s works in the public domain are: The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Aladdin, Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Chicken Little, A Christmas Carol, Hercules, The Jungle Book, Around the World in 80 Days, Atlantis, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Robin Hood, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Swiss Family Robinson, Tarzan, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Lion King, The Three Musketeers, The Reluctant Dragon, The Sword in the Stone and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

That’s quite a long list and billions were made with no payment to the authors of the works.  However it is here I depart from the Disney critics.  The vast majority of these works were well over 100 – 200 years old, with many going back to the middle ages.  Their authors were since deceased and their immediate descendants had already cashed in.  They weren’t cheating anyone out of money due in the process.  It should also be noted that an article published by NSU reports that Disney lobbyists had little influence in the passage of the last copyright extension law.

I don’t criticize Disney or other major motion picture studios for lobbying to extend copyright, I applaud it.  Those who protest copyright protection simply want to profit from the work of others and to give nothing in return.  Disney’s efforts to extend copyright not only gives Disney the right to profit from the characters they created for a longer term, it gives all creators the same right.  There is no reason the individuals and their families should not benefit from what someone works hard to create.  It also benefits the public.  Without the royalties earned through the copyrights, the studios would be unable to continue to bring works with the high production values we see today to the world.

The Double Standard on Copyright and Public Domain

fashion photographerHowever, as I touched on above, Disney, as with all of the major motion picture studios, major newspapers, magazines, and tech giants (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Instagram, etc) have all worked tirelessly to convince Congress and the world that creators – other than themselves – have no right to earn a penny off their work.

There is a double standard here that is mind boggling.  Individual creatives have fought Orphan Works legislation that the major studios have lobbied for year after year.  An “orphan work” is one that is clearly still under copyright, but the creator can’t be traced.  The proclaimed intent of the legislation is that the use of such works should not be restricted because the copyright owner cannot be found.  Should this ever pass, it protects the person using an “orphaned work” from copyright violation lawsuits.  They can simply take the work for their own gain and, if caught, state they made an effort to find the copyright holder and get off the hook.

The problem is obvious.  No one is going to be able to say they couldn’t find the copyright holder of Micky Mouse or a major motion picture.  But for the millions of smaller creators that put their work in front of the public in the hope their work will be seen and purchased or will lead to commissioned work, it’s easy for a movie studio, stock photo agency, or magazine to state they couldn’t find the creator.   The large corporations are protected, the individual artist is not.

We find this in copyright law itself.  The laws were written was in such a manner that, while copyright is automatic at the moment of creation, a successful lawsuit against theft of the work requires the work having been registered at the copyright office.  Along with that, the copyright registration process was made so cumbersome that individual creators find they do not have the manpower or financial resources to register their work.  Large corporations and studios with their legal teams do.  Don’t think this wasn’t intentional.

We see the copyright double standard at work constantly.  A few years back, Getty Images and other agencies lost a lawsuit for having stolen photos of the Haiti earthquakes off of Twitter and then selling them as if they were the actual copyright holders.  Getty claimed it was accepted business procedure to swipe images off of social media for their own gain, yet they diligently search for unlicensed uses of images in the Getty library and sue the users.

Getty lost the Haiti images lawsuit.  The publishing industry was very aware of the outcome.  Despite this, I am constantly stunned to see how many newspapers and magazines simply steal the photos they need off of Instagram or Facebook without asking, paying or even providing credit to the creator.  Try doing that to one of the photos their staff actually took.  You’ll find yourself in court.

Most people today believe content on the internet is free for the taking.  Google does nothing to protect the copyrighted works of others (while their own are ruthlessly protected).  Their image search tends to encourage people to swipe images off of the internet and they have refused to comply with pressures (even lawsuits) to simply make it clear the images and other content are copyrighted works.  They have also organized and hosted “hangouts” encouraging people to rally against “burdensome” and “outdated” copyright laws.  They don’t want the burden and they profit from the violations.

A staggering percentage of the videos uploaded to YouTube are either full length movies uploaded from a hacked DVD or compiled from copyrighted music, video clips and photos stolen off of the internet. The YouTube platform escapes penalty under “safe harbor” provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which essentially lets them claim they have no responsibility for the content hosted on their platform.  However this law states that the harbor is for platforms merely hosting the work, not for platforms that directly profit from advertising sold to be displayed on the stolen works.  YouTube has sophisticated algorithms that scan videos for offensive content not suitable for advertisers to prevent losing advertisers.  Yet they do not bother to scan for copyright violations and they profit immensely by allowing channels which display nothing other than stolen work to run Google ads from which they profit immensely.


I depart drastically from those that criticize Disney for working to extend copyright protection.  I believe they too simply want to profit from the work of others and give nothing in return.

No creator owes his work to the world. I applaud Disney and the other studios for their efforts to strengthen copyright.  People do have a right to earn a living for their work.

But, and this is a big but, these same entities cannot demand these rights for themselves while claiming no one else has them in the same breath.  When it comes to copyright, trademarks and intellectual property, the individual has the same rights as the corporation and we must demand they be upheld.

I close with a message to creators.  The world is currently being educated to believe copyright is outdated and worthless. If that were true, why are so many working to take it away from you?  Learn about it.  Fight to defend it.  Don’t violate it yourself.

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