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Taking the Mickey

In British English the phrase “taking the mickey” means “pulling your leg,” or “making fun of someone’s gullibility.” It doesn’t have any etymological relation to Mickey Mouse but Disney’s favorite rodent is again straining credulity.

The copyright law is an important protector of innovation: inventors need to benefit from their inventions. I’m a proud member of an anti-fundamentalist religion though — one that has made it possible to interject a whole civilization of rabbinical and lay interpretation from life into scripture by providing all its members with the tools to make that scripture accessible. So once a lifetime of benefit has accrued, society needs to be given access to those inventions. Not even Divine provenance and certainly not a cartoon mouse whose inventor has been dead for 40 years should allow texts to escape broad appropriation, interpretation and, possibly, improvement.

So when Disney, a multibillion dollar interest, lobbied hard and successfully to extend their monopoly over Mickey, Pluto, Goofy and Donald. It was an affront to the free exchange of ideas that most Americans claim is their right and a cornerstone of American freedoms. So far legislation has almost doubled the length of time that corporations can hold onto copyrights: from the original 50 to the current 95 years. Individual songwriters, insofar as they are able to police their rights without the support of corporate lawyers, have a measly 70 years.

Now, though, Disney — jealous controllers of the image of Mickey and the deep revenue streams he provides — is changing Mickey in order, the New York Times claims, “to make us like him.” So Mickey will be “cantankerous and cunning, as well as heroic.” So, in fact, nothing like the lovable minstrel figure that we saw in “Steamboat Willie” all those years ago. So nothing like Mickey Mouse?

It appears that Disney can change the image of Mickey to make us like him, or change him into any character they think will sell video games. But, at the same time we can’t use the image that’s been in the public sphere since November 18, 1928? To paraphrase Bill Thompson’s critique of Michael Bloomberg’s bludgeoning of the term limits legislation: “80 years is enough.”

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