Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Who Owns History? Who Owns Culture?
Who Owns Speech?
(November 23, 2012)

The Walt Disney company is responsible for delaying the publication of Full Steam Ahead!: The Life and Art of Ward Kimball by Amid Amidi. The reason, according to the author, is that Disney is unhappy that Kimball's life doesn't conform to the company's exacting standards. Disney has had the book since January of 2012 and has yet to approve it. The publication of the book has been delayed a minimum of seven months, preventing those who pre-ordered the book from reading it and delaying earnings for both the author and publisher.

I have not read the book and I certainly don't know the specific text that Disney is objecting to, but I find this situation to be very troubling for the chill it casts over our ability to comment on the world we live in.

We are now in a time where entertainment corporations have run amuck. I have recently written about Sony taking ownership of any artwork submitted by job applicants. In Finland, the police have confiscated the laptop of a nine year old girl for downloading a single song from the Pirate Bay. In addition, they have fined the girl 600 Euros, even though the girl's father has proved that the girl later bought the album and concert tickets for the band in question. Several countries have instituted laws where three copyright violations can result in a user being banned from the internet altogether.

One of the problems with this ban is how arbitrarily copyright violations are enforced. All over the web, there are sites which could be construed to be violating copyright. I say "could be" as a court could decide that material qualifies as fair use. And the copyright holder gets to selectively decide who to prosecute and who to ignore. In other words, if the company thinks the copyright violation is good marketing, it will turn a blind eye.

Beyond the logistics of corporations using the law to arbitrarily punish people, there is the much larger question of who owns history, culture and speech? When culture is manufactured for a profit, do we have the right to discuss it, criticize it and respond to it? Can we use examples to make our case or are we limited by the legal rights of the manufacturer?

As the entertainment corporations are now multinational behemoths with whole staffs of lawyers charged with protecting intellectual property, they use the threat of legal action as a deterrent. The Kimball book is a case in point. In court, it could be argued that any Disney artwork used in the book is fair use. What's one still image from the more than 100,000 frames in a feature film? How is the publication of a still depriving Disney of income? Disney could not suppress a book based on its text without proving libel, but it can suppress a book before the fact by denying the use of artwork and the threat of a lawsuit if a publisher decides to take a chance and publish anyway.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Disney owns Marvel and denied Sean Howe, the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, the use of illustrations unless they could approve the text of the book. Howe and his publisher decided to forgo illustrations, so the history of a comic book company has no images of the artwork that made the company worth writing about. And as I mentioned above, copyright prosecutions are arbitrary. Howe has a tumblr where he has included images that should have been included in the book and so far, Disney hasn't complained.

How strange is it that in the western world, it is permissible to comment on governments but not on companies that make cartoons? As corporations have increasingly lobbied governments to write laws for their own benefit, we may soon reach a point where criticizing governments is irrelevant and the corporations who should be criticized will stifle all dissent.

(Amidi's biography of Ward Kimball is now due to be published in 2020 without any illustrations copyrighted by Disney.)