Sunday Mailbag

June 17th, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Hi Tom, I was wondering what your thoughts were on Disney cartoonists? My daughter has a Disney coloring book. Man! The flow of the line work is amazing. Something as simple seeming as a finger or the flow of movement seems flawless. How much trail and error goes into developing such a look and how many people would be involved in deciding the look? Another question you might discuss is the copyright extension act that prevented Mickey and Minnie from entering public domain. Thanks for the blog. You’re the only reason many of us buy MAD.

A: Thanks for the kind words.

I don’t know a great deal about the history of Disney animation, but I certainly know what I like. I’ve always been a big fan of Disney’s cartoons and artists. Not Walt Disney himself… he was not a particularly good artist, and his poor treatment of the artists that worked for him is legendary. He was, however, a genius in that he recognized and demanded a level of excellence and found exceptional talent to accomplish this. The Nine Old Men of animation fame were the basis of that excellence, and they developed what would be the Disney look and reputation. They defined the 12 Principals of Animation which became the backbone of most animated cartoons from the 1930’s on.

Some animators detest Disney and call what they did “formulamatic”, particularly from the “Rescuers” onward when all of the Nine were gone. You cannot argue that later animators stuck to a certain look that was established years earlier with films like “Cinderella” and “Bambi”, particularly in regards to animals. What’s wrong with that? Virtually every studio in animation has it’s “look” and sticks to it for good or ill. Regardless of your opinions, you have to admire the craftsmanship (for the most part) that went into every hand-animated film. A company that brought live lions and other animals into it’s studio for the artists to do studies from is serious about getting it right. Disney artists were able to animate extremely complex animal and human movements with a grace and style that was startling. I was never a big fan of the “pencil to cell” look of the “Jungle Book” and other films of that era, but the drawing skills remained a constant.

As to the copyright extension that kept Mickey and company from the public domain, what you are referring to is the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, called by some the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extention Act (yes, that Sonny Bono, who as a congressman pushed for such legislation). It has also been referred to at the Mickey Mouse Act, as it was arguably Disney’s influence (and 6 plus million in campaign contributions) that made the change in copyright law happen.

In the 1990’s, current U.S. copyright law under the 1976 Copyright Act and later under the Berne Convention (when the U.S. joined this international copyright standard) allowed for copyright protection of intellectual property for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years from creation in the case of a corporate ownership. Under those laws, Mickey Mouse was due to have his copyright protection expire in 2003 and he would enter the public domain. That means that the world at large could use Mickey for free. Other Disney characters would also enter the public domain shortly thereafter. Obviously Disney didn’t want that to happen, so they lobbied for legislation to change it. The Copyright Term Extension Act extended copyright protection to the author’s life plus 70 years, and to 95 years for corporate owned property. Under this new act, Mickey was safe in Disney hands through 2023. The Supreme Court upheld the challenged constitutionality of the act in Eldred v. Ashcroft.

There are plenty of arguments for and against this. For myself, I don’t have any problem with it at all. As far as I’m concerned, if a copyrighted creation is being actively used by it’s copyright holder, it should remain their property until they stop using it. With today’s media, the lifespan of a character like Mickey may be hundreds of years. I don’t see any reason or good for the public in stripping Disney, or any creator of a piece of intellectual property, of it’s copyrights so the public can paint pictures of Mickey on the side of their day care centers, or so other company’s can make Mickey dolls or merchandise and cash in on what other people made valuable.

Here’s a great article on the ramifications of the act.

Thanks to Brian Wentzel for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Eddie says:

    “poor treatment of the artists that worked for him is legendary.”

    Actually this has been disputed quite a bit. The Disney artists were much better treated than many artists of the time and a handful of them were treated like gold. Many artists who worked for Walt recount their time there and interaction with him with great fondness.

    The talk of Walt’s poor treatment of his artists comes mainly from the strike in 1941 and by disgruntled artists like the great Art Babbitt. If anything, Walt was just head strong and knew what he wanted. If you opposed him you were on his bad side. Can’t blame him. It was his name over the door and he had a track record that couldn’t be beat.

    Just my $0.02


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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