Steal that post, not this one, the other one

Starting with the Mouse, obviously, because he’s more interesting than computer programs. Lessig has a big thing about whether or not Mickey Mouse should be in the public domain or not, which is good politics because pretty much everyone can agree that Disney’s purchase of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was one of the more disgraceful legislative spectacles of recent years. So the slogan is, “Free The Mouse“. Pretty cool huh?

Well not really. Because, through no fault of his own, Lessig is a lawyer. Don’t blame him, he’s a sufferer. For this reason, he thinks that everything that is good should be legal (a proposition I wholly disagree with), and, dare I say, he may possibly be missing the practical implications of putting Mickey Mouse into the public domain.

The major benefit to the world from Mickey’s entry into the public domain would obviously be that we could all get cheap knock-off Mickey Mouse videos to show our kids. But of course, there are two significant problems here:

  • We can get cheap knock-off Mickey Mouse videos anyway. The net is full of them. They flog them down my local market.
  • Kids don’t like Mickey fucking Mouse, because he’s old, and boring and shit, and he talks in that stupid squeaky voice. Kids don’t like anything that’s older than about five years ago, and all of those things are still in copyright.

And in any case, this isn’t the bee in Lessig’s bonnet; not unnaturally, he isn’t particularly concerned with the subject of whether a great big pile of cash is handed to this bunch of money-grubbing shills or that bunch of money-grubbing shills. What he’s worried about is the production of “derivative works”. Which in practice means, lots of stories about Mickey and Pluto having sex with each other. A noble cause, but not one for which I propose to die in a ditch.1

There is a serious point concealed here. Exactly what new works of creativity are we waiting upon? Beyond the obvious pornographic uses, what is going to be unleashed on us the minute that Mickey comes out of copyright? Lessig has one example, and it doesn’t hold up:

Here’s my favorite example, here: 1928, my hero, Walt Disney, created this extraordinary work, the birth of Mickey Mouse in the form of Steamboat Willie. But what you probably don’t recognize about Steamboat Willie and his emergence into Mickey Mouse is that in 1928, Walt Disney, to use the language of the Disney Corporation today, “stole” Willie from Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill.”

It was a parody, a take-off; it was built upon Steamboat Bill. Steamboat Bill was produced in 1928, no [waiting] 14 years–just take it, rip, mix, and burn, as he did [laughter] to produce the Disney empire. […] It was culture, which you didn’t need the permission of someone else to take and build upon. That was the character of creativity at the birth of the last century.


The meaning is: No one can do to the Disney Corporation what Walt Disney did to the Brothers Grimm. That though we had a culture where people could take and build upon what went before, that’s over.

So, there could be no Mickey Mouse today because the Disney people maintain a vice-like grip on their intellectual property, and you couldn’t do to “Steamboat Willie” what Disney did to “Steamboat Bill”. Right?

Wrong, and provably so. The makers of The Simpsons have done exactly that on a number of occasions with the “Itchy and Scratchy” characters. Here’s a version of the sequence in question; see what you think. Should Disney be getting their lawyers?

Like hell they should. Steamboat Itchy is “fair use”. If you want to produce a parody, or a substantial piece of work of your own which references similar themes to a copyrighted work, that’s already allowed. If you want to rip off someone else’s character to give spurious popularity to a piece of work which isn’t strong enough to make it on its own, you’re not. I don’t see a problem here, other than for those people who can’t really get off on a story about a random cartoon mouse having it off with a random cartoon dog unless they know it’s Mickey and Goofy. The reduction of copyrights advocated by the “Free the Mouse” slogan would benefit the piracy industry, plus they would benefit the creators of “derivative works”, in the worst and most pejorative sense of the word “derivative”. Both these types are by and large enemies of humanity, so I say keep the mouse locked up forever.

Or to put it another way; Lessig thinks that copyright laws are stifling creativity. I’m with Flannery O’ Connor:

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think that the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

1I do not mean for one second to suggest that Professor Lessig is into furry fetishism, though I confess that now the thought has occurred to me, I can no longer read his weblog without chuckling every couple of minutes. On the other hand, I can see a future in which this weblog becomes number one entry in a google search for “stories about Mickey and Pluto having sex with each other”, so I suppose I’m hardly in a position to comment.


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