Under thr 1909 copyright law, formalities (concerning notice and registration) were very important. I do not find it surprising then that the Disney’s may have messed up their copyright notice. The law then was that if there existed any ambiguity in the notice, then copyright was void. Of course, when a young law student working on an article asked Disnry about it, they threatened a slander of title suit if he made his thoughts public. Under the same difficulties in managing copyrights in the early days, I also firmly believe that other items generatin millions annually now, i.e. the Birthday Song, have expired copyrights. I am always available for anyone with unlimited funds who wants to take up this fight.
Ethically, a California slander of title action would not have been frivolous, and I have no doubt that they would bring such a suit, so the threat made by Disney General Counsel, now Los Angeles County judge, Louis Meisinger was not unethical. I do, however, find it unseemly – and just the sort of anecdote that makes the public hate lawyers. Threatening a law student with a lawsuit just for making a theory about a voided copyright public is an assault on decorum and propriety (and before dozens of people email me about the first amendment, please note that Disney is not a govt. actor).
The notion that any Mickey Mouse might be free of copyright restrictions is about as welcome in the Magic Kingdom as a hag with a poisoned apple. Yet elsewhere, especially in academia, the idea has attracted surprising support.
“That Steamboat Willie is in the public domain is easy. Thats a foregone conclusion,” said copyright scholar Peter Jaszi of American Universitys Washington College of Law after studying the issue at The Times request.
The issue has been chewed over by law students as class projects and debated by professors. It produced one little-noticed law review article: a 23-page essay in a 2003 University of Virginia legal journal that argued “there are no grounds in copyright law for protecting” the Mickey of those early films.