Though Disney and electronic music D.J. Deadmau5 seem to have little in common, the two entities are facing off in a legal battle. The creators of Mickey Mouse are filing a trademark lawsuit against the musician for his signature ears, which they allege resemble those of Mickey Mouse too closely. Disney wants to prevent the performer Deadmau5, whose real name is Joel Thomas Zimmerman, from trademarking the image he has been using for over a decade. Though all original work deserves respect, Deadmau5’s ears are not a threat to Disney’s favorite mouse. They more closely resemble a parody, or social critique of Mickey Mouse, and his right to use the ears should be protected. The costume is a signature of his performance persona and an extension of his freedom of expression.
According to the Daily Beast, Disney is no stranger to the issue of copyright, reporting that “[the corporation] gained a reputation as the world’s largest copyright enforcer (some would say copyright troll),” and has ample resources to fund legal disputes. In fact, Disney prominently backed the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which was passed in 1998. This law automatically and retroactively extended copyright and prevented these icons from passing into the public domain. In other words, this law allowed Disney to keep Mickey Mouse under copyright.
Despite the resemblance between Mickey’s ears and Deadmau5’s performance costume, his use of the ears is not a threat to Disney and does not directly infringe upon their copyrighted character. Copyright infringement becomes an issue of integrity and economic gain when consumers mistake the knock-off for the original version. For instance, purse or shoe manufacturers might take brand name logos with the intent to deceive consumers and make a profit. In this case, it is clear that copyright law should be enforced and upheld.
This case between Disney and Deadmau5, however, is not so clear-cut. While it makes sense that Disney might not want to be associated with the electronic music D.J., this situation begs the question as to whether any consumer would conflate the two images. Unlike the knock-off purse example, Deadmau5 is not claiming to be Mickey Mouse or trying to associate himself with Disney for economic gain. In fact, it seems he is attempting to do just the opposite. Deadmau5’s use of “Mickey Mouse” ears could be viewed as ironic — it is more of a social critique than an attempt to impersonate Mickey.
In this instance, Deadmau5’s costume falls under the protection of fair use law. According to the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use website, “a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.” Fair use laws allow people the freedom to make social critiques and parodies of otherwise copyrighted material without legal repercussions. Fair use laws protect parodists, such as musician Weird Al Yankovic, to allow artistic expression.
Just as Weird Al uses the First Amendment, freedom of speech and fair use to defend his work, Deadmau5’s ears should be subject to the same legal protection. Even though Deadmau5’s ears are a silent comment on Disney’s favorite mouse, his right to use them should be upheld. The ears are a signature part of his performance persona and only evoke Disney in an ironic way. His use of “Mickey Mouse” ears adds a layer of satire to his performances and is integral to artistic expression.
As Daily Beast writer Jay Michaelson asks, “Are all mice with round heads and ears copyrighted by Disney?” Michaelson suggests that Disney may have gone a step too far by targeting Deadmau5 and adds that not all copyright infringement is negative. While this may seem paradoxical, Andrew Leonard, staff writer at Salon, suggests Disney benefitted from the explosion of parody videos based on the movie Frozen. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are over 60,000 fan-made versions of Frozen’s “Let It Go,” which have been viewed more than 60 million times. Even though these parodied versions do not directly increase Disney’s bottom line, evidence suggests that they draw attention to the original.
While it is doubtful that Deadmau5’s ears will encourage electronic music fans to purchase Mickey Mouse related merchandise, this example reinforces the idea that copyright infringement is an ambiguous issue. Disney owns every right to claim Mickey Mouse as its own, but this should not prevent artists from using similar images. Deadmau5’s signature ears should be protected under fair use and freedom of expression, without a squeak of discontent from Disney.