Blog Post #12 – Stealing Animation
The world of animation seems to have slightly different ideas about copyright and property than would be found in books and papers. Copying other animations and animated ideas was quite common, and expected. I’d like to think that my feeling of OMG HOW COULD THEY is partly due to my college essay writing experiences and the various ‘plagiarize and die, got it?’ forms I’ve had to fill out at every school.
But animation in the early 20th century was brand new and no one really had a set formula for success. They mainly knew what was previously popular, and figured copying it would increase their chance of success. The topic pops up from time to time in Leonard Maltin’s book, “Of Mice and Magic, A History of American Animated Cartoons.” Animation was fair game once it hit the theaters, where animators could see if certain things ‘clicked’ for an audience. “We had no hesitation in adopting ideas from other people’s pictures. if it worked for them, it would work for us,” said Chuck Jones (Maltin, 240).
One thing that really stands out in each chapter is that the Disney studios set the bar for high quality. They hit the ground running, and kept up such a pace that everyone else lagged behind, no matter what they tried. Disney studios were the Harvard of the animation world. Any animator who learned and worked there could pretty much go and work wherever he wanted. So, if a studio couldn’t attract enough Disney animators, they did the next best thing. “Whenever a Disney cartoon was playing in a theater, we’d go in and pay just to see the cartoon and study it, see what we could steal in ideas and everything” Harry Love remembers (Maltin, 210-211). No one saw a problem with this, and the audience probably didn’t know or didn’t care. Animation techniques and plots were both ripe for the taking. “You remember that scene in the Disney picture where Mickey Mouse did s0-and-so?” Jack Zander recalls Hugh Harman asking. “I want EXACTLY the same thing” (Maltin, 227). Not just a similar idea, but a direct copy.
On the other hand, it’s hard to determine whether ideas and techniques were’ borrowed’ or animators simply moved from studio to studio without detailed tracking of each animator’s moves. Animators were eager to work/study with the most innovative animators at the best studios, and many of them had their own special way of drawing that was recognizable.
Imagine an artist attempting this today! I am a miniaturist, and belong to an online group of other miniaturists from around the world. Disney memorabilia being so ingrained in our culture, naturally they wanted these things in one-inch scale to decorate their houses, and the topic popped up frequently in our discussions. Sellers and manufacturers immediately warned “DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS! Disney will come down on you HARD.” If you wanted a pair of ubiquitous mouse ears to set in a dollhouse child’s bedroom or on a doll, you had best quietly make it yourself and not tell anyone. If you were foolhardy enough to make enough to sell, you would certainly NOT call them by their right name on Etsy. Disney is not shy about cease-and-desist orders!
Having seen the attitude of animators in the early days of animation, I can now begin to understand Disney’s actions. They were so concerned that they lobbied hard for the Copyright Term Extension Act
to try and prevent their still-in-use characters from entering the public domain. The way the other studios proudly claimed to emulate Disney animations, I can’t say I blame them!