The Disney Corporation is a notoriously litigious firm, with most of their lawsuits based on copyright infringement. (In their book Against Intellectual Monopoly, Michele Boldrin and David Levine entitle one chapter “The Devil in Disney.”)
Indeed, the two most recent extensions of copyright duration (once in 1976 and once again in 1998) were spearheaded in part by Disney. This was done to keep Mickey Mouse, who first appeared in 1928’s Steamboat Willie out of the public domain, earning the chart shown below the derisive nickname “the Mickey Mouse curve.”
The latest form of underhanded litigation enabled by our current copyright regime involves a fan-made film about the life of Darth Vader between the prequel movies and the original trilogy. From David Poutain:
Though Disney is a notoriously litigious media giant, channel [that hosted the Darth Vader fan-film] owner Toos reportedly received the okay from Lucasfilm to make his fan film in advance under the conditions that he didn’t crowdfund for the project and didn’t monetize the video. Though Toos adhered to these terms, the channel received a copyright strike earlier this week from the Walt Disney Music Company’s publisher Warner/Chappell Music for the film’s soundtrack. While the music for Shards of the Past was an original composition, the publisher felt that it hewed too closely to the “Imperial March” theme composed by John Williams.
The publisher has therefore started monetizing the video themselves, and has reportedly made over $80,000 so far. To make matters worse, Toos says that Disney has since reached out to him, but only to warn him against taking legal action for the situation, even threatening to have his channel taken down.
Leaving aside the fact that Disney could have shuttered the project entirely, to the detriment of Star Wars fans and the creator “Toos,” this incident exposes the minefield copyright law creates. “Toos” followed the rules set by Disney, but the similarity to a 39-year old song (“Imperial March”) puts the project in jeopardy and allows the rightsholder to profit from a project Disney wouldn’t allow the actual artist to monetize.