Mar
10
1999

Keeping Mickey In The Private Domain

Who's the leader of the club that's paid for you and me?

S-E-N-A-T-O-R L-O-T-T!

And you know what, boys and girls? Thanks to Trent Lott and others in the Senate club, the big people at the Walt Disney Co. don't have to worry about Mickey and his pals getting lost in a scary place called "public domain."

You see, the copyright for Mickey Mouse was going to expire in 2002. That would mean all kinds of kids and grownups could start playing around with him.

But Lott came to the rescue. The Senate majority leader got behind a bill ensuring that Mickey could stay out of the public domain for 20 more years.

Early in this century, Congress enacted a landmark copyright law after hearing a renowned author in a white suit testify on Capitol Hill one day in December 1906. Back then, Mark Twain spearheaded efforts to protect creative work.

Fast forward to last fall, and the contrast in artistic sensibilities is telling. Congress named a new copyright law in honor of a singer-turned-politician, famous for bell bottoms and pop tunes. It's formally known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

This time around, the testimony and the pressure came from executives in high places, representing outfits like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Disney conglomerate. They found bipartisan congressional support.

The Disney execs were anxious for Mickey to stay with them under a trademark shelter. And they have a big one. The Disney empire now includes broadcasting networks, cable TV channels, music labels, book publishers, film studios, theme parks, pro sports teams and a cruise line. With sales revenues topping $2 billion every month, Disney knows how to take care of Mickey!

It's hard to imagine a more insipid — or more lucrative — cartoon character. He's the symbol of a media firm that moved on from the Mickey Mouse Club to become one of the world's great promulgators of mass culture.

Protecting the sanctity of Disney's foremost logo is not only about symbolism. Mickey isn't just an outsized rodent. He's also a cash cow; or a goose laying huge golden eggs. Whatever the metaphor, the barn door is nailed shut. Mickey isn't supposed to wander — and neither is his image.

After half a century, Mickey Mouse is trapped by contradictions. On the one hand, Disney proclaims that the big-eared icon is an integral part of Americana. On the other, Disney insists that Mickey is entirely private property — the head honcho of a cartoon menagerie that fully belongs to the corporation, which retains legal power to prevent any unauthorized use, even when the aim is to raise issues about politics and culture.

With Gen. Augusto Pinochet now under arrest for overseeing bloody violations of human rights, we might ponder the fact that his dictatorship went out of its way to burn copies of "How to Read Donald Duck" after seizing power from Chile's democratically elected government in September 1973.

By then, many Chileans had bought the book, written in mid-1971 by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. Worldwide sales of "How to Read Donald Duck," translated into a dozen languages, reached 500,000 copies before the end of the 1970s.

But few of those books got inside the borders of the United States. Arguing that "How to Read Donald Duck" infringed on its copyrights, Disney kept putting up roadblocks. In 1975, the U.S. Customs Bureau seized a shipment of the English edition.

Attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights contended that "the seizure of the books is a classic case of abuse of the laws to suppress political dissent and unpopular opinions." The publisher won the case. But Disney's deep corporate pockets and fervent hostility had a chilling effect in Uncle Donald's homeland. Many potential booksellers seemed wary.

"How to Read Donald Duck" — illustrated with a few cartoons as examples — offered a tough-minded critique of the values conveyed by popular Disney comics. The book sought to raise basic questions about corporate culture, routinely accepted and often adored.

Nearly 30 years later, much of what passes for mass "entertainment" is overdue for sharp scrutiny. "Pop culture" is less culture than acculturation. Styles of competitive acquisition prevail over humanistic values. And the symbols foisted on the public remain under tight private control.

Although they sometimes lob salvos at each other, the power centers of Hollywood and Washington are pretty content with the status quo. The bipartisan club on Capitol Hill was acting in character when it averted Mickey's breakout to the public domain — a calamity now forestalled until 2022.