Disney Calls Michael Jackson Estate ‘Overzealous Copyright Holders’ in Attempt to Kill Irony

Let me tell you a story about Disney. In 1989, Disney discovered that some daycare centers in Florida had murals of Disney characters painted on their walls. They did what any reasonable multinational corporation that values intellectual property and profits over human beings and threatened the daycare centers with legal action if the murals were not removed. Their legal threat was based in trademark law, not copyright law, because a lot of IP holders use trademark law, which is supposed to protect a mark of business, such as a logo, and pervert the intent to protect characters, which are supposed to fall under copyright law, but copyright terms are (theoretically) finite while trademarks can last forever.

The situation was resolved when Hanna-Barbera repainted the daycare centers for free with murals depicting their characters. This sounds like an urban legend, but it’s actually true.

In the intervening 30 years, Disney hasn’t gotten any better. In 1998 Disney fought tooth and nail to get the copyright term extended by another 20 years to prevent Steamboat Willie from becoming public domain. In fact, due to Congress increasing the copyright term every time Steamboat Willie was close to entering the public domain, no new works have entered the public domain since 1978.

Basically, Disney loves copyright laws. There is no copyright law too strong for Disney, who have issued DMCA takedowns of pictures people had taken of Star Wars toys claiming the pictures violated their IP rights. But now Disney has finally found a copyright they don’t like: one that belongs to someone else.

That’s right, Disney is being sued by the estate of Michael Jackson over a special that ABC produced in which it slapped together a bunch of clips from Michael Jackson songs and videos, called it fair use and said “That’s two hours of programming sorted.”

Here is Disney’s reply, via The Hollywood Reporter:

Answering claims over illicit use of Michael Jackson rights, Disney states, “This case is about the right of free speech under the First Amendment, the doctrine of fair use under the Copyright Act, and the ability of news organizations to use limited excerpts of copyrighted works — here, in most instances well less than 1% of the works — for the purpose of reporting on, commenting on, teaching about, and criticizing well-known public figures of interest in biographical documentaries without fear of liability from overzealous copyright holders.”

The thing is Disney is right, what they did was fair use, but they’re still evil. For example THR also ran a story a few days ago about Disney suing a guy who has a business sending cosplayers to parties. Disney claims that he’s infringing their trademarks on the characters (which, again, isn’t what trademarks are for) even though he doesn’t use their names or likenesses (the things that are trademarked) on his website. They want draconian control over their own copyrights and unfettered use of everyone else’s, and it doesn’t work that way. The one small silver lining is that it appears Congress isn’t acting to extend copyright and things will once again start entering the public domain on January 1st.

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