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COLUMN ONE

Whose mouse is it anyway?

Disney disputes a former worker's claim that a trademark goof means an early incarnation of Mickey is public property.

August 22, 2008|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

He even threatened Hedenkamp with legal action if the young scholar openly advanced such claims.

"With respect to your plans to otherwise promote these as being in the public domain," Meisinger added, "please be advised that slander of title remains actionable under California law for both compensatory and punitive damages."

Nonetheless, Hedenkamp let the genie out of the bottle, spelling out his arguments in the Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal, a publication of the University of Virginia's law school. It attracted little attention off-campus.

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Although losing Mickey would be the greatest rights setback for the world's biggest family entertainment company, it wouldn't be the first.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Mickey Mouse: The headline for Friday's Column One on a copyright controversy over Mickey Mouse referred to a claimed "trademark" goof. In fact, it should have said "copyright" goof. Also, the article and a graphic caption transposed the name of the company that recorded the "Steamboat Willie" cartoon. It should have said Powers Cinephone System, not Cinephone Powers System.

One of Walt Disney's earliest creations was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. After the cartoon proved popular, a New York distributor used an advantage in its contract to take control of Oswald, then hired away many of Disney's artists. Mickey was the product of a desperate comeback attempt by Walt and his brother.

After that painful experience, the Disneys "held on to everything they did with a ferociously strong grip," former company Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney said recently.

Disney's carefully controlled licensing pioneered a sweeping business strategy that today uses television to promote movies that sell toys and bring people out to theme parks.

Though Disney sees itself as the hero of a corporate Cinderella story, the company's aggression in copyright cases has verged on the cartoonish.

There was the time that it threatened to sue three Florida day-care centers for painting Disney figures on their walls. And this year, Disney did sue a home-based business for $1 million after a couple put on children's parties with ersatz Eeyore and Tigger costumes.

Ironically, the company has mounted international efforts to claim some characters for the public domain -- such as Bambi and Peter Pan -- even as it defends Mickey Mouse. Many of Disney's most famous figures were the creations of others, including Cinderella, Pinocchio, Pooh and Snow White, though it has vigorously protected its depictions of them.

In such battles, Disney has been known to employ arguments every bit as arcane as anything raised against it by Brown.

Take the saga of Bambi, by Austrian Felix Salten. The story of the fawn was first published in Germany in 1923 without a formal copyright notice, which wasn't required there. Three years later, Salten republished it with a notice.

In the 1930s, Salten's rights were assigned to Disney, which made the famous 1942 movie. When Salten's heirs renewed the copyright in 1954, they correctly listed 1926 as the year of Bambi's first copyright.

But in a 1994 dispute over royalties with a small publisher that had acquired the Salten family's rights, Disney lawyers said the 1954 copyright was void because it was filed three years too late -- based on the fact that the story was first published in 1923. A federal judge sided with Disney, ruling Bambi was in the public domain.

Though that finding was reversed on appeal, the legal ordeal bankrupted the publisher.

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Today, Brown still lives off disability payments. His appeal was dismissed when he missed a filing deadline. Disney then seized $20,000 from his accounts, which Brown says was all he had.

The former Disney devotee has soured on the company. But he continues to be charmed by the genius behind Mickey Mouse.

"If Walt Disney had lived another 20 years, the world today would be a much better place," Brown said. "I don't know anyone else I could say that about, except maybe Bobby Kennedy."

Hedenkamp, after writing his law review article, never heard from Disney again. Now 32, he works at an Irvine firm handling commercial law.

He describes himself as a "huge fan" of Disney. He also says that because Disney has taken advantage of so many characters created by others, it is only fair that artists get to borrow from Disney.

"Other people should get to put their spin on those old characters," Hedenkamp said.

Roy Disney said he had never heard the theory about problems with the title cards. Nor was he surprised.

During those early years, he said, "Nobody knew what they were doing."

Meisinger, the former general counsel, is now a Los Angeles County judge. Asked about the Hedenkamp article in an interview in his chambers, Meisinger gave an instant nod of recognition but ignored an invitation to take up the argument again.

"Everything has to fall into the public domain sometime," he said, then headed back to court.

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joseph.menn@latimes.com

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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