Public Domain Disney

Disney is no friend of the public domain, but in honor of the public domain finally expanding, we wanted to appreciate Walt Disney’s contributions to it.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: If you haven’t heard, 2019 is a good year for the public domain. Thanks to Congress’ failure to pass a copyright extension bill last year, we’re seeing copyrighted works enter the public domain. For the first time in more than 20 years, we’re seeing things being removed from copyright in the United States—film, music, you name it, if it was made in 1923, it is now in the public domain as of today. Despite the fact that Sonny Bono’s name was on the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, it’s widely believed that The Walt Disney Company played a key role in the extension of the copyright term and the long gap we’ve had in fresh public-domain materials. But now that we’re past that point, I’m going to talk about the stuff that Walt Disney was responsible for making in 1923 and before. Try and stop me, Disney lawyers. You couldn’t extend the term of copyright again, so now a bunch of stuff Disney worked on is fair game. Today’s Tedium is about Walt Disney’s contributions to the public domain. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from one of Walt Disney’s most famous public domain cartoons, Steamboat Willie. Yes, I checked.

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The year of copyrighted material that was just added to the public domain. It’s also the year Walt Disney moved to Hollywood after the failure of his first film studio, choosing to be near Los Angeles to be close to his brother Roy, who was recovering from an illness. So yes, this means that nothing Walt Disney created at Disney is actually in the public domain at the moment (wait a few years)—but he did create a lot of stuff before then, as a young man in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Walt Disney’s business card, circa 1921. (Public domain)

There was no Mickey Mouse, but Walt Disney’s Kansas City years set the stage for the rest of his life

If you’ve ever had a creative side project you were really excited about but could only work on after you quit work for the day, there’s a lot to like about the story of Walt Disney before he started his namesake studio.

It’s hard to consider in context of what we know about his work now and that work’s impact on our popular culture, but Disney had to come up like the rest of us, working dead-end jobs and taking on freelance projects while attempting to find his way as an illustrator and animator. At one point, he lived in his office because he had no other choice. But the surprising part about all this is that his years of struggle happened when he was still extremely young. The Walt Disney Company, originally known as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, wasn’t Disney’s first company; it was his third.

To put it in modern terms: Walt Disney was a startup guy, and he followed the Elon Musk zero-sleep model of productivity. He was a busy innovator, willing to experiment on a wide number of business endeavors before he found his true calling as the co-creator of Mickey Mouse.

Some of his earliest work has long been in the public domain. As a teenager, Disney—who spent many of his formative years in Kansas City— found himself attending high school in Chicago after his father invested in a jelly factory. Disney would spend time working at The O-Zell Company, but also created cartoons for a high school newspaper called The Voice. These cartoons, produced in 1918, don’t appear to have a direct copyright on them (maybe there was one on the newspaper?), and one must wonder if Walt took the time to renew the copyright on his high-school illustrations.

After high school and a period serving in the military during World War I, Disney would find various gigs that leaned on his impressive illustration skills—while also trying to forge some entrepreneurial paths for himself.

In 1919, at the age of 18, he took on an apprenticeship at the Pesman-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, a firm that was on fairly shaky ground financially, which led to layoffs of Disney and others at the studio. But it was nonetheless an important stop on his career journey, as it led to a friendship with a fellow illustrator, Ub Iwerks. The two of them, each roughly the same age, would start multiple companies together during this period, including a commercial art studio for newspaper advertisements, and would often follow one another to different jobs such as the Kansas City Slide Newspaper Company.

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Mr. George’s Wife. (Public Domain)

During this time, Disney was trying to come up with creative endeavors that would become his meal ticket. One such endeavor was a comic book series called Mr. George’s Wife, which he tried and failed to sell to publishers both before and after he got to Hollywood. And it was during this time that he started messing around with animation, leading to the creation of his first film studio. But by the middle of 1923, it had largely faltered, and Disney made his big move West.

At the age of 22, a time when many in the modern day feel like they’re only getting started in their lives, Walt Disney had already been in the workforce for half a decade, had already started two companies and was about to start his third.

That company, of course, would change the world. But it’s still worth pondering the animated works that Walt Disney made before then—and, later, graciously gave to the public domain, nearly a full century after their creation and 52 years after his death.

“Everybody screwed up copyright in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Under the 1909 act, courts were really insistent on formalities.”

— Gregory S. Brown, a onetime Disney researcher, explaining to the Los Angeles Times why the odds of many films falling into the public domain are high—including Steamboat Willie, which somewhat surprisingly doesn’t have a correctly implemented copyright code. Brown noted that while the modern Disney is run like a well-oiled machine, the firm was haphazard in its early years, likely raising the odds of a mistake like this. There are a small handful of early Disney films in the public domain beyond Steamboat Willieamong them are Minnie’s Yoo Hoo, which doesn’t have a copyright at all, and The Mad Doctor, whose copyright wasn’t renewed.

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The Laugh-O-Gram studio in action. (Thank You Walt Disney/Public Domain)

The public-domain cartoons Walt Disney produced at his first studio

There’s something elegant about the name Disney that doesn’t necessarily come across in the name Laugh-O-Grams. One is timeless, while the other definitely feels like it’s of a certain era.

Walt Disney led both companies, of course, with Laugh-O-Grams being a bit less heralded than what came after. Working off a contract and with the leftover assets from the Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists business, the company produced a number of low-budget Laugh-O-Gram cartoons over a two-year period, many based on one of Disney’s most common sources of material: Traditional stories that were already in the public domain.

Little Red Riding Hood, released in 1922, is considered Walt Disney’s first real cartoon, and is a good example of his early style. One notable thing about the cartoon is that it was literally drawn on paper, rather than using more traditional animation cells. The film was considered lost for decades until a version of it was found in 1998. So watch to your heart’s delight, because we almost didn’t get to see it.

In The Four Musicians Of Bremen, Disney out and says that it’s “a modernized version of that old fairy tale,” making sure the Brothers Grimm receive proper credit for their work.

Of course, not everything that Disney’s company created at this time was animated. Tommy Tucker’s Tooth, effectively a commercial for a local dentist, tried to teach kids the value of proper tooth care. It obviously was a total blast, but you gotta pay the bills somehow.

The last film that Laugh-O-Grams made was perhaps its most ambitious. Alice’s Wonderland, completed in 1923, combined animation and human characters, one of whom was Disney himself. The film was effectively a sizzle reel, aiming to show off Laugh-O-Grams’ capabilities and attempt to sell distributors on a potential series. The cartoon features Julius the Cat, one of Disney’s earliest mascots and a pretty obvious ripoff of Felix the Cat. (But we’ll give him a pass because he’s named Julius.)

Done on a tight budget, it’s often hailed as an excellent example of early animation in the silent film era, and it later inspired a full series elsewhere. But it was not enough to save the studio, which went bankrupt around the time the film was finished.

The year was 1923—meaning that the entire creative output of Laugh-O-Grams is in the public domain, so knock yourselves out watching it, sharing it, and appropriating it for your remixing needs.

“When I got to Hollywood, I was discouraged with animation. I figured I had gotten into it too late. I was through with the cartoon business.”

— Walt Disney, discussing his frustration with animation after moving to Los Angeles, having dealt with the failure of Laugh-O-Grams and in the tough position of being away from the action—see, the animation industry at the time was in New York, not Hollywood. It might have been enough to convince Walt to give up on animation, just as a setback like that did the same for many others. But instead, things worked themselves out: An attempt to sell Alice’s Wonderland to Margaret Winkler, a film distributor he originally contacted while still running Laugh-O-Grams, gave him the push he needed to get back into animation. A few years later, after a contract battle led to the loss of his early characters (and most assuredly made Disney, the company, aggressive about copyright), he created an even better one, inspired by a mouse that hid in his desk at Laugh-O-Grams. His name was Mickey.

Look, I get that this issue of Tedium is kind of a sneaky backhanded compliment of a post, taking a bit of a sneer at a company whose selfish desires harmed the growth of public knowledge for decades during a period where public-domain content from the 1930s and 1940s would have been particularly valuable for the public.

Consider, for example: If the 75-year copyright term for public domain material stayed where it was in 1998, the entire early “golden era” of films in the 1930s would be in the public domain. Last year, Casablanca would have entered the public domain. This year, Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series of paintings would be doing the same. (Though it’s worth noting that, in the case of individual creators like Rockwell, the term of copyright after the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976 was the life of the author plus 50 years—but only for works produced after the law took effect in 1978.)

But here’s the important part: A lot of other non-iconic stuff would have as well, and that would have created opportunities to better understand our history and culture. Magazines and newspapers full of inherent historic value would be more freely accessible for research purposes, as would books and vintage photography. We could better understand our history with this work, and maybe even rediscover some lost gems, but the inflexible nature of copyright doesn’t allow for that.

To be clear, there probably was a case to be made for protecting the value of vintage copyrighted material—after all, the film industry had only figured out how truly valuable it was with the help of the VHS tape. (And it’s worth considering that, at the time the Sonny Bono act went into effect, Disney was already using an aggressive “vault” strategy to maximize the value of its VHS releases.) But there’s also a case that long copyright terms remove cultural value from works that didn’t previously have significant monetary value. There’s a lot of old stuff that will still get sold; there’s a lot more that will never see the light of day again, its copyright holders lost to history.

The Walt Disney Company has a pretty massive corporate identity to protect, of course, but on the other hand, not everyone can say they’ve had Walt Disney’s success. (Case in point: Disney is such an icon now that his period of struggle is worth a dramatic film in its own right.)

After all, it’s entirely possible that a creator who never reached Walt’s stature might be hiding behind a wall of obscurity that’s preventing their greatness from being seen, obscurity that might be better appreciated in the public domain where the work could be recreated and reimagined—you know, like what Walt Disney did with his own cartoons.

What if someone else who nearly became Walt Disney didn’t get their lucky break?


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! (And to anyone that works for Disney, sorry in advance.)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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