Thursday, October 13, 2011

Walt Disney, Snow White, and Occupy Wall Street

At NRO, Charles C.W. Cooke finds an Occupy Wall Street protester to mock and educate. It needs to be quoted at length.
He was a fairly well dressed and sometimes well spoken middle-aged man, and he wanted to talk to me about Walt Disney. This request alone was enough to pique my interest. But then, he surprised me. “Walt Disney,” he said, “was a whore…Look at how much money he made out of Snow White….Why can’t I use it in my mashups?”

Walt Disney made a lot of money from Snow White, something my friend considers unfair. But then Walt and his brother Roy also took a lot of risk. Originally estimating that the movie would cost $250,000 to make, the final bill ended up at around $1.5 million. During the three grueling years of production, Walt was almost universally laughed at for his ambition, including by his wife and brother. In the industry the project was known as “Disney’s Folly,” in part because the studio quite literally had to invent most of the processes necessary for the production of a full-length animated film. It had never been done before, and he was banking the studio’s future on it turning out alright. Through sheer will and charisma, and the hard if skeptical work of his brother Roy, Walt managed to borrow enough money to realize his vision. And here is the kicker — Walt remortgaged his house to help pay for it.

I told my friend this in response to his appraisal, albeit in less detail. His response: “So? I’ve lost my house twice.”

What we should have absolutely no sympathy for whatsoever, however, is the naked rejection of the American system, as espoused by my Disney-hating friend. Whatever one thinks of Wall Street, Walt Disney won fair and square and deserves our admiration not our oppobrium. It is this sort of attitude, encountered widely, that devastates the protester’s cause.
Actually, Walt Disney's corporation is a perfect example of how big corporations can bend the government to suit their purposes in ways that benefit them and crowd the public out of their own moneymaking and artistic endeavors.

Until 1998, a movie like "Snow White"—that is, a work of "corporate authorship"—would've been under copyright for 75 years. Under that law, Disney's movie would've entered the public domain ... next year, making it possible for Cooke's protester to use the video in his mashup without fear. Something new and interesting might've been born of it.

But the Walt Disney corporation managed to use the power of its lobbying muscle to have the law revised with passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act. Now works of corporate authorship are protected for 120 years. "Snow White" won't be lawfully available for mashups until ... 2057. Assuming Disney hasn't had the law changed again by then.

There's a reason for copyrights—so that creators can reap the rewards of their work—but, once upon a time, there was a good reason for limited copyright terms: So other creators could take those ideas, build on them, create new innovations, and extend the vitality of capitalism.

And it's a good thing, too: "Snow White" was available for Walt Disney to use and fashion into something new, beautiful, and profitable because it was in the public domain. Walt Disney took risk, sure. His corporation is keeping others from acting similarly. That's not the "fair and square" victory Cooke claims.


Monkey RobbL said...

Disney IS a great example of this corruption, and I wonder if Cooke is oblivious to this, or just being disingenuous. Walt and Roy built the company on taking (often popular) public domain material, "Disney-izing" it, and then copyrighting the result. The idea that a work derived from a public domain source could then be copyrighted for 120 years is so far from "free market" as to be laughable.

namefromthepast said...

You made the statement that.."His corporation is keeping others from acting similarly"

That is pure BS.

Disney nor any other business has any power, jurisdiction, etc to keep others from using its stuff for 120 years-government does.

This is another example of chrony capitalism that the leftwing believes a larger more powerful gov't will correct.

Monkey RobbL is right that this is not the free market.

Corporations like Disney lobby and use the gov't as a tool to protect their interests and it costs ordinary Americans one more sliver of freedom.

It is a first ammendment right of a corporation or anyone else to to petition the government for a redress of grievances so we can't limit that.

So why direct anger at a business for using a tool available to them? Why not work to limit this tool to its constitutional bounds?

Joel said...

How about: "His corporation is working to keep others from acting similarly. And since it resources—money, lobbyists, campaign contributions—it can bring about its will with an effectiveness unavailable to average citizens."

That said, I think you mostly make a fair argument. Except: It wasn't on the "leftwing" agenda to grow Disney's profits at the expense of individual freedoms to take something from the public domain and make it new.

And I'm fine directing anger at businesses. I think there's a strand of conservative-slash-libertarian thought that would rein in the excesses of Big Government, leaving the path open for Big Business to dominate our lives instead. I think that's behind MOST of the rhetoric you hear from the GOP. (And I sense you're more libertarian than Republican; correct me if I'm wrong.) Just because a Giant Institution is acting within constitutional bounds doesn't mean that the Giant Institution doesn't have pernicious effects. The only different is that Big Biz is less accountable to you and me than is the government.

namefromthepast said...

How can bring about its will, though the manipulation of an all powerful government, with an effectiveness unavailable to average citizens." Then we agree.

I find the idea of being dominated by big business irrational.

Simply put I don't think in a free market economy it is possible for any one or small group of businesses to dominate in such a fashion.

The basis for my belief is it is impossible to have a monopoly or dominant share in a profit rich, mass appeal, transparent, unregulated, market.

Enormous profits are required to dominate lives and profits are limited by a truly free market.

BTW-I suspect the feeling you have that big biz is less accountable to you than gov't, is a result of the fact government is more paramount to profits than the consumer.

Joel said...

"Simply put I don't think in a free market economy it is possible for any one or small group of businesses to dominate in such a fashion."

Name: You're my friend. But I think that statement is the triumph of ideology over reality. Unless you're defining "free market economy" in some utopian, never-existed fashion. And even *then* it's still the triumph of ideology over reality.

namefromthepast said...

Joel I like this debate and we'll put it aside if you wish but a big biz big gov't alliance is much more dangerous than big biz by itself. That's not ideology that's common sense.

In my occupation I see this alliance daily and it's sickening so maybe I'm a bit more jaded than the average bear.

Your comment earlier said government is more responsive to you than big business is, but government is more responsive to big business than to you.

If this is the case does it make sense to put faith in government to act to regulate big business in mine or your best interest?