Disney is a name that is often associated with copyright maximalism for pretty good reasons. Despite the fact that many of its early successes depended heavily on either direct infringement or making use of the public domain, the company was a very aggressive enforcer of its own copyrights. And, of course, it was also a primary lobbyist for expanding copyright protections, andextending copyright term every time Mickey Mouse approached the public domain.
However, in the past few years, it’s seemed as though Disney has been a bit quieter than in the past about copyright issues, allowing some other companies to take the lead on that. And, in some cases, it seems to even be recognizing (*gasp*) that some infringement can actually be a good thing. Andrew Leonard, over at Salon, has the story of how Disney has finally joined the 21st century in realizing that having fans create derivative works around the movie Frozen, has actually been useful and free promotion for the original (and massively successful) movie.
Disney’s expertise in nurturing, co-opting and, most of all, not cracking down on the many ways fans have embraced “Frozen” online is a template for how to thrive in a digital, copy-promiscuous, consumer-empowered environment. Disney, long one of the fiercest and most powerful defenders of strict intellectual property control, has learned how to let copyright go.
The article includes a bunch of examples of people who have built up huge audiences (and even careers) themselves, almost entirely built off of Disney’s works — without Disney getting involved at all. Disney isn’t asking for money and it’s not shutting them down. It’s just letting them do their thing, even if they’re making money from doing so. Why? Because it appears that even Disney is recognizing that even when these “infringers” are making money, Disney itself likely makes even more money from it:
Disney did not respond to my queries as to where they draw the line or how they are engaging with non-authorized use of Disney characters. But there’s anecdotal evidence that the company has realized that the same people who are buying soundtracks and merchandise and DVDs are the same people who are making and sharing YouTube videos. Although Disney once viewed YouTube with alarm, the company now seems to realize that fan-created content — even in cases where that content is generating revenue that is not captured by Disney — is cross-promotional marketing that money can’t buy.
For all the times we see copyright defenders insist that anyone “making money” from someone else’s work is “obviously” a problem, it’s nice to see Disney understand how non-zero-sum markets work, and the fact that just because someone is making some money, it doesn’t automatically mean that money is coming out of Disney’s bank account.
So… within a very short time it appears we’ve seen both the Supreme Court officially admit that infringement can be beneficial, and Disney implicitly admit the same thing. It feels like hell may be freezing over.
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