Hard News by Russell Brown


Land-grab in the Magic Kingdom

If you follow these issues, you will doubtless be familiar with the US Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which saw the Walt Disney Company successfully lobby for a law that prevented various of its works coming out of copyright. You probably are not aware that earlier this month Disney applied to the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand for sweeping trade mark protection around works that Disney did not create.

The upshot of the Copyright Term Extension Act - dubbed by various wags the Mickey Mouse Protection Act - was that Mickey Mouse, whose copyright protection had been due to expire in 2003 (the 75th anniversary of Steamboat Willie), was placed back under protection until at least 2019, along with Donald Duck, Pluto and the rest of the gang. In the process, tens of thousands of works were prevented from entering the public domain.

You might argue - as Disney did - that people are living longer these days, and Disney deserved longer protection for its own creations. But what about other people's creations?
Disney's application to IPONZ for a trade mark on Alice in Wonderland. The specification of goods and services for which trade mark protection is sought is very lengthy: from furniture to food, clothing to CDs.

You may be astonished at the breadth of the application being lodged by a company that has done no more, in this case, than produce adaptations of classic works of children's literature. Ditto for Snow White, Peter Pan, Pinocchio and a list of characters from those works.

This is not trivial. It would be understandable for Disney to try and protect its interpretations of existing characters, but its application for so-called "word marks" implies something much more than that: it implies exclusive rights to use all those characters. There have been at least 14 English-language films based on Carlo Collodi's 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio (which itself drew on classical sources), and many more in other languages. If Disney was to obtain such trade marks (which cover "motion picture films"), would it then become impossible to make - or at least market - another one without Disney's permission? Would it be a copyright lockout via the back door?

Fortunately, the claims are still under examination and it appears that IPONZ won't simply wave the rubber stamp. Disney is being asked to prove its original rights in the characters and their names. One would hope that Disney is not allowed to annex stories that are out of copyright (in some cases, that's precisely why Disney was able to make movies of them) merely because it adapted them. That would be creepy.

In a related vein, ZDNet's Mitch Ratcliffe declares that intellectual property laws are "besnargled beyond recognition". He also links to a law.com article about how copyright lawyers breach copyright all the time.

Must-read from the Techsploder: Juha covers Peter Gutman's rebuttal of Microsoft's rebuttal of his critique of Windows Vista DRM - and then bravely seeks to play some HD video content on his own PC, running Vista. Ouch.

And finally, tech commentator and developer Paul Reynolds has finally decided to give this blogging fad a go.

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