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Intellectual Property Law

Mickey Mouse Mistake May Invalidate Early Disney Copyright

Posted Aug 22, 2008 10:46 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Lawyers for the Walt Disney Co. empire don't even want to hear that anybody is making the argument. But an early version of Mickey Mouse, who starred in the first synchronized sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, may not be properly copyrighted.

A copyright card at the beginning of the cartoon—commonly used under a 1909 law that applied when the cartoon was made—lists three possible copyright holders between the Steamboat Willie title and the copyright line, reports the Los Angeles Times in a lengthy page one article today.

Because that creates confusion about who actually holds the copyright, it is probably invalid, according to law students who have studied the issue. They include Lauren Vanpelt, who wrote a paper about the issue while a law student at Arizona State University in the 1990s, and Douglas Hedenkamp, who stumbled across her paper on the Internet while he was a Georgetown University law student.

The argument has been made in court by Gregory Brown, 51, a former Disney researcher, in a copyright case over his attempt to sell re-created animation cels from another early Mickey Mouse short, The Mad Doctor. However, he raised it too late in his case, and a judge dismissed the argument as untimely without ruling on the merits.

As a practical matter, anyone who wants to challenge the Disney copyright to any version of Mickey can expect one heck of a courtroom battle.

"Law and equity might line up on the side of forfeiture," says Michael Madison, associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. However, "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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