“Gotcha Last” Copyright Isn’t a Thing

Up front: I enjoy Disney stuff. I just went to their Not So Scary Halloween party. That said, I had a bit of a literary rage moment the other day. Someone was talking about a local performance of The Little Mermaid. Trying to be up front, the producers apparently made a point of letting everyone know this wasn’t the Disney version.

Given that The Big Mouse is known for being vigorous in defending its copyrights and trademarks (and, incidentally, not wanting to disappoint an audience expecting those same, copyrighted versions), the producers seemed, to me, to be taking a reasonable precaution warning folks up front.

The viewer I interacted with, however, responded with sarcasm. The plot of the performance, you see, was about a teen-aged mermaid who falls in love with a man from the surface, so she sells her voice to a sea witch for legs. Which is the plot of the Disney movie, so suuuure they aren’t ripping them off.

Thank you for your patience through the exposition. I now give you my promised rage:

Are you screwing with me?

None of what you described is something Disney employees created. It is, however, the plot that Disney took from that actual, original story, which Disney does not own.

I know it’s a shock, given how prevalent the logos are on the merchandise, but Disney doesn’t own The Little Mermaid. That’s a public domain fairy tale.

They don’t own other folk tales like Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Frog Prince, or Rapunzel.

They don’t own public domain children’s stories like Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or The Jungle Book.

They don’t own cultural myths and tales like Aladdin, Mulan, Hercules, or Arthurian legends.

They don’t own novels from the public domain like Oliver Twist, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, or Treasure Island.

They own the specific elements they developed using the source material. Original characters added in their versions. The specific likenesses presented in their films. Music. If that mermaid’s tale that started this off involved a talking seagull named Scuttle, we’d have a problem. If she sported bright red hair and purple seashells, you might be treading dangerous waters.

It is long past time, however, that people stop conceding massive chunks of completely free and public elements of literary culture to Disney once they touch it. They don’t own it. We do. Every one of us. And I am conceding it to them over my dead and rotten corpse, and arguably not even then.

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