Disney may be nervous
IANAL, thus this is opinion. But copyright - and all of the various intellectual property laws - are of some interest to me. Thus there are a couple of cases in progress to which I’d like to direct your attention.
On the surface they’re pretty much the same. Klinger v Conan Doyle Estate Ltd is the one getting most of the press. Lesser known Clabell v Zorro Productions Inc is probably more troublesome for organizations such as Disney.
Here’s the surface. Both challengers are saying that the subject - Sherlock Holmes and Zorro - are public domain as their opening stories were published prior to the copyright break line. The other sides are saying that the characters are not merely of the opening document but the result of the entire series of refinements and productions, thus the date the last item was published regarding each is what applies.
Thus Disney has its first issue of question: is Mickey public domain when Steamboat Willy ages, or does it keep Mickey and the gang for as long as they produce material? I’ll add in fairness that it is not just Disney. Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and a host of other characters belonging to myriad copyright holders both corporate and individual are going to have an interest in this.
There’s a second tier issue, however, where these two differ in a way that among other things make it hard to combine the cases. Kilder is merely challenging the copyright licensure requirement. Clabell, on the other hand, has accused the holders of Zorro of actual copyright fraud. The basis of this accusation brings - indirectly - more interest for the mouse.
See, Zorro Productions Inc not only holds sole license to Zorro (they don’t own the copyright per se, but they obtained those rights de facto for the duration of the rights), but they have made Zorro a trademark issue.
If you’re going to dig into intellectual property you’re going to find everyone, even the experienced, tripping over the difference between copyright and trademark. Here’s the simplistic clarification. Copyright is automatic. Trademark must be obtained and defended.
So the thing is that Mickey Mouse, and to a certain extent Goofy and Donald and the rest of the gang, have been used as trademarks by Disney. One of the ancillary elements of the Clabell challenge is whether trademark protects copyright. Does the fact Zorro Productions has Zorro as a trademark also give it de facto copyright privileges for as long as the company protects the trademark?
Both cases are getting their first tiers of hearings in the next few months. Both cases have enough interest and money that regardless who wins at the lowest level the cases will go to appeal. If you’re involved or interested in copyright you might want to make note of them as they’re going to impact how the law is held.
In the interest of completeness, one last peculiarity to the Zorro case needs mentioned. Among other things, Clabell is alleging that the owners of Zorro Productions obtained the copyright/trademark through fraudulent action. Pretrial movement to dismiss was denied, which means the judge thinks there’s enough to at least hear the reasoning. What this means is that the whole issue could die, mooted, if Clabell’s fraud claim is upheld. After all, there’s no need to parse between trademark and copyright if there’s nothing left to parse.