Authors: Aaron Goldberg
Tags: #Taled of Real Life Disney Scandals, #Accidents and Deaths, #Sex
Obviously, Disney security is watching you, especially around their merchandise. Sometimes their diligence crosses the line and encroaches on being over-zealous or outright criminal. This is exactly the case for a handful of guests that filed lawsuits against Mickey when they were accused of shoplifting, despite still being in possession of their purchases receipt.
In October of 1989, Lonnie and Karen of Idaho took their five-year-old daughter to Disneyland. The family won a trip to the park after their daughter took first prize in a contest held by their local television station. After enjoying much of their day at the park, the family stopped off to buy a character piggy bank. The cashier rung up the purchase without bagging it and their little daughter played with the bank while she was pushed in her stroller. Once the family rolled out of the store, a Disney security guard flashed a badge and said, “Your little girl in the stroller has removed an item from the store without paying for it. That makes her a shoplifter.”
Karen offered to show the receipt, but the guard refused and told Karen she was an accessory to her daughter's crime. He then proceeded to tell her to stop crying and making a scene. He escorted them into the security office for questioning. Two and a half hours later, after being questioned about the shoplifting, a supervisor finally examined the receipt she offered up initially. Not only did Karen purchase the bank, but she was overcharged for it as well.
Oh yeah, while the security supervisor was checking out her receipt, he noticed in her handbag that she packed dried fruit and nuts for her daughter. He scolded her for that as well, as it was against park rules to bring food into the park. Finally realizing their mistake, security let the family go, refunded the cost of their tickets and drove them back to their hotel in a nice Cadillac. A spin in a luxury car wouldn’t be enough for the family. They filed a $1 million lawsuit against the park, which was settled out of court in September of 1992.
Also at Disneyland, Denise took her son to the park to celebrate his third birthday in February of 1996. She purchased her son a twenty-one-inch Mickey Mouse doll at a souvenir stand. Hours later, she said she was approached by a plainclothes security guard who informed her he watched her steal the doll minutes earlier at the Star Trader store near Space Mountain; ironically the same store where Karen was accused of stealing.
Denise and her fiancé denied the charges and told security they purchased it and had the receipt. Security didn’t listen and Denise at the moment couldn’t find the receipt. They interrogated the two separately for over two hours and eventually escorted them from the park. As they were being led out of the park, eureka, Denise found the receipt. She took it to a park employee to verify it, but Disney didn’t care or drop the charges.
At the time, Disney would fine shoplifters in addition to contacting police. In the first few years of the 1990s Disney would collect fines of up to $500 from shoplifting suspects after detaining them. In fact, Denise received a $275 fine from Disney in the mail. If she paid it she could avoid being prosecuted. This fine was one of the ways she found out Disney didn’t drop her charges. Denise paid the fine, and Disney still didn’t relent. The two parties went to trial in June of 1996. Denise was found not guilty, which set the stage for her to sue Disney for damages. This case also went to trial and Disney lost there as well. A judge awarded Denise $65,000; $30,000 in punitive damages, $35,000 in compensatory damages and the security guard was also ordered to pay her $750.
At first glance, this last story could have probably made its way into Lights, Camera, Accident!, maybe even Mickey Mania, but for some folks, it is all about the money and that leads us to Randle and his experience at Disneyland.
In April of 1994, Randle was a passenger aboard Disneyland’s SkyWay gondola ride. The attraction took guests on an aerial trek between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The attraction had a pretty impressive safety record; there were no major accidents or incidents. Randle’s trip changed that when he fell over twenty feet out of the gondola and landed in a tree near the Alice in Wonderland attraction.
Randle was rushed to the hospital with back and neck pain. At the time of his release from the hospital, Disneyland said he only suffered minor injuries and couldn’t imagine how this accident happened. They stated the ride had a two-step locking process. Both lock and handle had to be opened from the outside in order for the door to open. The attraction was checked that morning before the park opened.
Disney was befuddled as to what happened, even OSHA came to the park to check things out and couldn’t determine the cause. Conversely, Randle’s attorney (he sued for $25,000, claiming he fell out of the ride) said, “he wasn’t doing anything improper and he certainly wasn’t trying to get out of the ride. Randle had no warning of the events and just by the grace of God was he able to survive the mishap.” This statement was basically a big fat, see you in court!
In the days leading up to the court date, something out of the ordinary happened. No, Disney didn’t settle, instead Randle dropped his case. He wrote a letter to the court and to Disney apologizing for his fall from the ride. He did it purposely for a payday. In his letter, he called his lawsuit ill advised, his actions regretful, and was sorry for the negative publicity Disney received.
On that note, next up are the cases where Disney is the hunter and not the hunted. If Randle thought his case brought some negative publicity to Disney, wait until you read about the first story in Pirates of the Courtroom.
Pirates of The Court Room
In 2010, a jury found sixty-year-old John guilty of misdemeanor battery after he was arrested for groping Minnie Mouse at Walt Disney World. He was sentenced to two days in jail and fifty hours of community service.
In April of 1989, three day care centers in Hallandale, Florida (located in southern Florida, much closer to Miami than Orlando) did something they thought was pretty benign. They painted the exterior of their buildings with five-foot murals. The murals depicted everyone’s favorite mouse, duck, and dog; Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. When city officials noticed the outdoor artwork, they did a little investigating.
The centers didn’t have a license for their murals. Code enforcement stepped in and notified the owners they needed a sign variance for their properties. They were also informed the murals may not take up more than twenty square feet of wall space. Municipal trouble weren’t the only issues sparked by the art. Disney heard of the situation and sent someone down to verify the claims of their copyrighted characters being used without permission. Sure enough, there they were in all of their illegal glory.
Disney reached out to the centers and ordered them to remove their copyright protected icons. The centers were hovering in the dangerous territory of Disney copyright infringement. After the story made national news, a two- month campaign was waged by a group of toddlers, folks from around the country, and the city of Hallandale, pleading with Disney to allow the murals to stay up.
Disney’s response was and will always be a big, fat NO! As their legal representatives dug their heels into the sand, they reminded everyone that the daycare centers were breaking copyright laws. Law-breaking aside, the public may think Disney supported or sponsored these centers by allowing the characters to reside on their buildings. Disney does approve of and allow schools all over the country to use their characters inside classrooms and on bulletin boards but an outside wall may imply they are in business at the location. The murals were ordered off within thirty days.
Disney, through a spokesperson said, “We must protect our copyright even though we are sympathetic to the children’s affection for the characters. If we were to allow them to use the characters, then we would have to allow everyone else to do so. If we don’t protect our trademarks and copyrights, we could lose them and be out of business”.
Despite the vast majority of the public thinking Disney was being overprotective and a bit of a jerk, the point was taken and the logical argument understood. Not to worry though, a few other legendary copyright-protected characters went on to adorn the day care centers walls. Universal Studios was getting ready to start their crosstown rivalry with Mickey in Orlando by opening up their own theme park in 1990. In an effort to win over some kids and gain some free PR, Universal’s artists came in and eradicated Disney. They painted Woody Woodpecker, Fred Flintstone, George Jetson and other characters owned by Universal and Hanna-Barbera.
Crisis averted and all parties were happy, yet some people were still annoyed by Disney’s reaction and the turn of events. Mickey debuted in public in 1928, and after all of these years, how are these characters still protected, or better yet, why?
Over the decades, and prominently with their first full-length animated feature back in 1937, the company utilizes stories that are a part of the public domain. Despite all of this success from the public domain, Disney themselves aren’t necessarily a fan of it; at least in the sense of it being a two-way street. They love to use the centuries-old stories and music from it, but don’t want their works to become a part of it.
So what is all of this talk about the public domain? Well, it’s exactly as it sounds. They are works not protected by copyright. Permission from the creator is not needed to use the work. Be it music, art, literature or, of course, cartoons. No permission needed also means no license, fee or royalty paid.
The first American Copyright Act was implemented in 1790. It granted the copyright owner fourteen years of protection, which could be renewed for another fourteen years. In 1831, the Act was revised to extend copyright ownership to twenty-eight years with another renewal of fourteen years.
Another amendment to the Act happened in 1909. The initial copyright was still twenty-eight years but the renewal could extend past fourteen years and go to twenty-eight years. The Copyright Act was again amended in 1976. Its framework is for the most part, what stands today. In an effort not to sound like an intellectual property textbook, I’ll try and keep it simple. The revision from 1976 extended the copyright term to fifty years after the copyright owner's death. For works created before 1978 that hadn’t yet entered the public domain, they were granted another seventy-five years of copyright protection
When 1998 rolled around, The Copyright Act was amended again. Had it not been, the early 2000’s would have seen an even bigger influx of Mickey Mouse products on the market; if that were even possible. The reason for this surge in Mickey would have been due to Disney’s most prized possessions entering the public domain. Disney pushed hard for this not to happen. They lobbied for a copyright extension, as they obviously wanted to keep those early works of Mickey (and his profitability) out of the public domain. President Bill Clinton signed the Copyright Term Extension Act, also known as the Mickey Mouse Act, or Sonny Bono Act, into law.
The law did a few things. First, it extended the ownership of copyrights. Instead of the term standing at fifty years after the copyright owner's death, it was extended to seventy years after their death. The extension for corporate works, anonymous works, or works for hire, became ninety-five years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.
Next, it basically froze things from hitting the public domain until 2019. Works created and copyrighted in 1923 or after that were still protected as of 1998 will not lose their copyright. Plain and simple, nothing new would enter into the public domain. Most importantly for Disney, the roughly $8 billion a year they generated in 1998 with anything connected to Mickey’s name stays under lock and key. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens in 2019.
Disney fought hard in the 1990s to get the Copyright Term Extension Act passed. They formed a lobbying committee and made political donations where they thought it would be most advantageous. With their copyrights still intact, Disney continues to patrol the world looking for those infringing upon their characters in an effort to make a quick buck off one of the most recognizable faces in the world.
Let’s be honest, unless you’re an expert on intellectual property or work at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the subject of Disney copyright and trademark infringement can be a bit dry. With Disney being so recognizable and a savvy merchandiser of thousands of products, they encounter an enormous amount of bootleg, fraud and infringement cases, these are the more interesting ones.
Most of these cases begin when a Disney piracy inspector notices bootlegged items. In the mid 1980s Disney even had investigators that went on-site to retailers and performed piracy “sweeps.” In 1986, they sued nearly 100 retailers in California during one sweep alone. The company also routinely receives submissions from stockholders, consumers that bought bogus products and even anonymous tips. There is an anti-piracy tip line and email address on their corporate website should you be so inclined.
As you can imagine, with a company that licenses and merchandises everything from piñatas to pencils, there are more infringement cases than you can imagine. In 1985 to 1989 alone they sued 1,700 people for copyright infringements pertaining to just Mickey and this was in the days before people started to get uber-creative with their computers and the internet. As Michael Eisner once said, “When it comes to intellectual property, you can’t be too litigious.”
With that being said, lets dive right into bootleg Mickey. One of the more notable cases to test Disney’s patience started in 1971. Dan O’Neill was a successful cartoonist, he had a national newspaper audience and at the time, was the youngest syndicated cartoonist in history, at age twenty-one during the early 1960s.
Dan was obviously a very talented cartoonist and witty writer to achieve such success at an early age. His comic strip,
had a loyal following for years. The papers that carried his strip gave him only a few parameters. Keep it benign; no politics, religion or sex. Dan initially stuck to the schematic, but as society and culture changed, Dan couldn’t help but insert some of his own cultural commentary into the strip.