In 1998, Joel Thomas Zimmerman was 16 years old, noodling around with vintage DOS music software like Impulse Tracker.
A world away, in Washington, D.C., well-heeled lobbyists got Congress to pass the Copyright Term Extension Act, better known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, adding 20 years to the life of a copyright. Disney was one of the act’s primary backers.
This week, the two collided. Zimmerman is now better known as Deadmau5, electronic music performer, DJ, and Rolling Stone cover boy, who made $21 million in 2013. And as first reported by TMZ, Disney is suing him over his ears.
Here are the two logos, side by side. You be the judge:
I mean, you can see the resemblance. Then again, are all mice with round heads and ears copyrighted by Disney? Also, is there really any way that innocent consumers might mistake a hardcore house/techno DJ whose logo looks like he’s rolling on Molly with Steamboat Willie?
As Mouse-watchers know, none of these questions really matter to Disney, which has gained a reputation as the world’s largest copyright enforcer (some would say copyright troll). Ranked #66 on the Fortune 500, Disney has plenty of lawyers to keep busy. They’ve sued Etsy stores, Stan Lee, Megaupload.com, YouTube, and hundreds of unauthorized merchandisers, dealers, and artists.
And in addition to passing the Mickey Mouse Protection Act just before the Mouse himself was to enter the public domain, Disney lobbied hard for SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have authorized court orders barring search engines and advertisers from even linking to infringing websites.
And Disney doesn’t just sue—it gets nasty. In 2008, Disney sued a family that bought unauthorized Tigger and Eeyore costumes on Ebay for $1 million plus legal costs. Really? A million bucks for a Halloween costume?
And now, Deadmau5.
There are three reasons why this case may be different, though.
First, some pundits have noticed that Disney has begun to back away from its hard line on copyright violations. The reason? Frozen. The zillions of parodies and tributes to Frozen on YouTube are widely credited with boosting that film’s popularity and helping it become the highest-grossing animated feature of all time.
Disney also recently purchased Maker Studios, which focuses on exactly the kind of YouTube shenanigans that Disney itself used to prosecute. With the success of Frozen and the acquisition of Maker, perhaps Disney is beginning to see the Web 2.0 light.
Second, there’s Deadmau5 himself, who recently tweeted “lawyer up mickey” in response to the threat. Behind that bravado, though, is a serious legal arsenal. Zimmerman owns trademarks to his mouse logo in 30 countries (so much for the underground artist versus the big corporation) and has been using the image for over a decade. One of the core principles of copyright law is that you can’t sit on your rights. If Disney had time to go after the Tigger costume, couldn’t it have gone after Deadmau5? Why did it wait for EDM to become huge, and Deadmau5 to be rich?
Finally, this case is actually about whether Deadmau5 can trademark his image in the United States—not whether he can use it at all. Disney hasn’t issued a Cease & Desist letter; it’s opposing Zimmerman’s application for the mark. Probably this is all about the money. If Deadmau5 and Disney can work on some kind of a payment arrangement, this suit might just go away.
I, for one, hope it doesn’t. I’d rather it become a smackdown between Old Media and New, between the Disney of Fantasia and the Disney of Frozen. Right now, Disney is walking a fine line, embracing social media and fan-created content on the one hand, while maintaining its hard line on copyright on the other. Does anyone think Disney won’t fight to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain again in 2019? Of course it will—just as it pushed so hard for SOPA only two years ago.
So I say, let’s have it out. Let’s see if Disney can copyright all mice everywhere, the way that Spike Lee tried to copyright “Spike” (he settled) and NBC tried to copyright the Top Ten List (they gave up). Let’s see if it can oppose Deadmau5 while still going after his legion of Kandi-wearing fans. Let’s see who’s really the dead mouse.