I’m not a huge fan of Disney, largely because as a grad student in the 1990s, I chose the 1920-1950 time period for my dissertation based on my expectation that the literary works I studied from that time period would fall out of copyright one by one during my career. I planned to mine my dissertation, using what I learned about the literary works in that time period to create free, annotated hypertext editions of those works. I’d schedule them so that they’d appear online as the copyright dates passed, and I could reap the intellectual rewards while wearing my tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, as I discoursed thoughtfully with colleagues in the faculty lounge, debating minutiae as my hairline slowly receded over the years.
But in 1998, after the structure of my dissertation had taken shape and I had done most of the heavy research, Disney successfully lobbied Congress into passing the Copyright Term Extension Act, mostly so that they could extend the copyright on Mickey Mouse for another 20 years.
Those works are starting to come out of copyright now, but after 20 years, the landscape for digital scholarship is different; the e-texts I had envisioned back then simply wouldn’t have such a big impact if I were to release them now.
As it happens, my academic career survived Disney’s legal shenanigans. I published my dissertation as a traditional monograph. But from time to time I do wonder where my path might have taken me if I had stuck to my plan of turning out annotated digital texts.
Here’s a story about another set of people whose work has been impacted by Disney. These are the freelancers and hack writers whose character designs and story ideas created the early heroes of the Marvel Universe. Disney has aggressively acted to claim ownership of these characters, arguing that their intellectual property was “work for hire,” that the employees were decades ago paid a fair rate at the time, and that they have no claim on the huge profits their characters are reaping for Disney.
“At the time all these characters were created, their material was definitely not ‘work made for hire’ under the law,” he said in an email in response to Disney’s filings. “These guys were all freelancers or independent contractors, working piecemeal for car fare out of their basements.” Hence, not “traditional, full-time employees,” he said.
“At the core of these cases is an anachronistic and highly criticized interpretation of ‘work-made-for-hire,’” Mr. Toberoff said in a separate email, adding that the interpretation “needs to be rectified.”
The termination notices expressed the intent to regain copyrights to some creations as early as 2023. If successful, Mr. Toberoff’s clients would receive a portion of profits from new works based on any of the copyrighted material. –New York Times “Disney Sues to Keep Complete Rights to Marvel Characters“