Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Empire Eats the Innovators Part 2: Disney Hates You

In 1947, at the beginning of Communism Paranoia in the US, Walt Disney was among those within the entertainment industry who testified to the House Un-American Activities Commission.

What I love about this is that Disney supports both conservative paranoia and liberalism, so there’s something to irritate everyone. 

Many of those who refused to testify were either blacklisted from Hollywood for the rest of their lives or under suspicion of Communist sympathies for years.  Many of those who blew the whistle on their own employees and colleagues have since become synonymous with their politics, including Ronald Reagan (duh), Ayn Rand (double duh) and J. Edgar Hoover. Yet Walt Disney occupies a rarefied space, his political and personal views eclipsed by the near infinite reach of his own “creations”. 

 There is an implicit approval of certain ideologies within both mainstream culture and the geek community, an unquestioned acceptance of the relationship between creator and property, a blurring of the edges between artist and owner.  It is well known, even parodied, that Walt Disney’s “creation” of Mickey Mouse owes the lion’s share of credit to a man named Ub Iwerks.  Though Disney would provide the character’s voice, Iwerks was the sole designer, hand animating the first unofficial Mickey Mouse short, Plane Crazy, in 1928. 

Source: Disney Image Archive 

Of course, Iwerks was Disney’s employee, and as such retained few rights.  Iwerks continued as an innovator in animation for much of his life, but saw little of the profits garnered from his creation.  Though his initial split from Disney has been attributed to a feeling that he was being denied credit for creation, Iwerks was seen as a man working on commission.  Any profit derived was simply determined by right of contract.  He was, essentially, an intellectual sharecropper.

The same was true for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster when they sold the rights to their joint creation of Superman to National Allied Publishing.  They were paid $412.  Since then, first the men themselves then their respective families have seen nearly a century of legal battles in order to achieve proper residuals from their intellectual inheritance.  A settlement on the Schuster family’s fight was reached in favor of Superman’s parent company, Warner Brothers, as recently as last year

The problem for the families, much as with Iwerks, was that they had nothing but an ideological truth in the face of hard limits of the legal system.   The relationships between creator and owner was designed to be this way, much as the system surrounding it was designed so that art is so little valued that artists are often left forced to usurp the rights of their creations in order to survive.  Any attempt to overcome this system after the fact is one that has been lost before it began.

Of the millions of people who saw the Avengers last summer, how many of them knew that most of those characters were created by a man who had to fight for compensation and recognition until the day he died?  How many people who watch The Walking Dead every week know that the source material’s publisher, Image, was born out of a group of creators splitting from Marvel over demands for this very same recognition (and a lot of ego, but still)?  How many of the adults who support the characters they love by accumulating huge toy collections ever stop to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group whose sole purpose is to fight for the rights of creators?

But that is what our culture does.  It abandons the creator and worships the object.  A single company like Disney can own so much intellectual “property” as to essentially hold dictatorial control over a culture’s fantasies.  And it would be one thing for the general public not to question it.  But for the “geek” to accept it and praise their arrival in the mainstream is disappointing.  It is the job of the outsider to question, to resist, or at the very least to declare solidarity with creators and artists and call for a system to acknowledges their contributions.  Sadly, it seems geek culture is content enough.  To use an appropriate analogy, it is not too much to give up one’s voice if the prize is approval by the patriarchal establishment.  



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