Disney’s Copyright History



Disney is a company that has been around for a long time, and they have collected a lot of money through most of it. They have their business fingers in a whole lot of pies, everything from movies, music, cable networks, theme parks, and clothing. Becoming the entertainment giant took a lot of time and money. They have grown from a small animation studio to a huge multi-million dollar company, and they have acquired a whole lot of intellectual property along the way. They are one of the Largest Lobbyist for Copyright Law in America (they contributed to the campaigns for 18 out of the 25 congressmen who sponsored the Sonny Bono bills in the Senate and the House), and as such have receive a lot of criticism for their actions.

The Walt Disney Studio was started in 1928 after Walt Disney quit his job working with Universal Studios. By doing this he lost the rights to his first successful character “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” (Universal Studios owned the rights to the rabbit until Disney traded a Football sportscaster to obtain his rights). The Disney studio started with production of short animated cartoons presented in Technicolor and gained success with producing shows that coincided with a sound track. It is during this time that “Mickey Mouse” began his rise to power [3]. Eventually the company started to strive for bigger and better productions and eventually produced its first full length feature film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. This story was based off of the folk tale published in the 1800s, and had been in the public domain for quite some time. This trend has continued even now with movies such as “Frozen”, supposedly based off of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Ice Queen” (1845), “Alice in Wonderland” (twice), “The Little Mermaid”, “Robin Hood”, “Princess and the Frog”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and so on and so forth [2].

Mickey Mouse Curve

The “Mickey Mouse Curve”, showing copyright extension with Mickey Mouse’s coverage under the Copyright Acts. [3] cited to a Mr. Tom W. Bell

This trend does not seem to be an uncommon theme amongst movies. Most of the successful movies released throughout a year are based off of some prior work existing already. New successful stories are hard to come by, many companies opt to stick with the re-telling of common stories from comics or popular works of fiction. This practice begins to look a little unusual when you begin to look at the way Disney handles this. Since the independent studio was founded in the 1920’s, not a single piece of intellectual property owned by Disney has entered the Public Domain. Not even one. That is almost ninety years of property held independently by the company who’s most successful works are derivatives from stories that existed in the public domain. Even the story told in “Steamboat Willie”, Mickey Mouse’s first short film was derived from a Buster Keaton film “Steamboat Bill Jr” and it was considered a parody! Disney has come under fire for potentially stealing ideas for films from works that were based off of the same public work stories (see link), as well as stealing from other short films (another link). Some of these claims seem likely to be dropped while others seem like they could be serious [3].

Since Disney seems so dependent on the use of works in the public domain it seems interesting to me that they are leading the charge against the continuation of its existence. In my opinion it seems really wrong that every one of those eighteen elected officials took the money, and it seems even worse that the bill was almost basically unopposed in both the house and senate [2]. I understand that it is important for an entertainment company to defend the things they come up with, but to me it just doesn’t seem right to withhold so much when they depended on those public treasures to develop in the first place. It also seems to stand in the way of the “temporary monopoly” that the founders spoke about in the Constitution [1]. Temporary doesn’t really apply when a company’s entire 90 year history is locked up in their possession.



[1] Hunter, Dan. Oxford Introductions to U.S. Law: Intellectual Property. 1st ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

[2] Khanna, Derek. “50 Disney Movies Based On The Public Domain.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/derekkhanna/2014/02/03/50-disney-movies-based-on-the-public-domain/>.

[3]”Disney History | The Walt Disney Company.” Disney History | The Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney Company. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://thewaltdisneycompany.com/about-disney/disney-history>.


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