In today’s society, the issue of copyright is an ever present deterrent and source of condemnation for many would-be disseminators of online and offline content. The recent high profile court cases of Napster, Limewire and Kim Dotcom/Megaupload Ltd., demonstrate the severity of copyright infringement and the repercussions upon those that attempt it. One particularly infamous case occurred in the 1970s, involving one group of aspiring counter-culturists and the epitome of mass-consumerism and purity, vying with one another for freedom of expression and their own artistic rights. In 1971, Mickey Mouse became an unexpected battleground in a legal conflict waged between the Air Pirates comic artists and the might of the Walt Disney Company.
One of the artists, Dan O’Neill, felt compelled to attack the corporation, hoping to “buck corporate thinking. We just didn’t like bulls*** [Author's amendments].” The 1960s revolution brought about an age of counter-culture, a time of rebellion and corporate entanglements. The Walt Disney Company, according to O’Neill was the perfect target. In 1971, O’Neill and the Air Pirates published two underground comics with the intention of attacking Disney directly. In Air Pirates Funnies #1 and Air Pirates Funnies #2 a large variety of Disney created characters were spoofed, portrayed in sexual acts, narcotics use and profanity. The Walt Disney Company crackdown came down hard and swift. By 1979, O’Neill was unemployed, stripped of his assets and awaiting further sanctions against him, totaling more than $190,000.
Air Pirates Funnies #1 Air Pirates Funnies #2
The legal course taken against the Air Pirates was one of the more ludicrous acts of judicial process seen in the United States. On 21 October 1971, a copyright infringement order was taken against the Air Pirates. Their legal representatives argued that through "great effort and...large sums of money," Walt Disney Productions had created characters whose "image of innocent delightfulness...are known and loved by people all over the world, particularly children" and that the defendants' efforts to "disparage and ridicule" these characters threatened the company entire. The legal representatives requested that the Walt Disney Company be awarded the entire Air Pirates' profits, $5,000 per copyright infringement, treble damages for the trademark infringement, punitive damages of $100,000 from each defendant, surrender of the offending books, and reimbursement of its attorneys' fees.
Keyhole Komix Presents “As You Like it,” Air Pirates Funnies #1
In O'Neill's opinion, "The Mouse Story" contained within his Air Pirates Funnies comics symbolised a tale of "the awakening within Mickey...of an awareness of his sins and his subsequent transformation and redemption." The seemingly gratuitous sexual acts and casual swearing were indicative of Mickey Mouse’s "depression." His outburst in one of the panels, "The whole world thinks I'm cute...! So why won't Minnie f*** me? Why won't Daisy f*** me? Why won't anybody f*** me?!? [author’s alterations]," is a manifestation of his bitterness and diatribe. Using this argument, O’Neill attempted to parody the artistic work spawned by Disney, to belittle the ties to popular culture that Mickey Mouse held:
"Disney presented Mickey Mouse to us when we were children. As cartoonists and adults, we approach Mickey Mouse as our major American mythology....I chose to parody exactly the style of drawing and the characters to evoke the response created by Disney. My purpose in using the Mouse as a character is not to destroy the Disney product, but to deal with the image in the American consciousness that the Disney image implanted."
The sort of material found within these two comics is certainly lurid in nature. Indeed, it is too lurid to feature in full within this blog (though I was sorely tempted!). There were a number of varying comic strips; Bobby London’s Dirty Duck
, Dan O’Neill’s Silly Sympathies
, featuring Bucky Bug and, most notably, Silly Sympathies Presents The Mouse
. Each and every page depicted a likeness, both implicit and explicit, to that of pre-existing, Disney-owned cartoon series, characters and stories.
The first issue, Air Pirates Funnies #1, was published in July 1971.In Silly Sympathies Presents The Mouse, O’Neill introduced a true to form of 1930s Mickey Mouse, albeit a more depraved, sexually frustrated and drug addicted Mickey Mouse. Joining Mickey in this tale were a few of the villains from the original Walt Disney comic books including, Sylvester Shyster. Minnie Mouse also joined the fray, rebuking Mickey, the “dirty duckf*****,” for her contracting a venereal disease, picked up by “that dumb b**** Daisy [author’s amendments].” With both Mickey and Minnie captured by the ‘Air Pirates’, Shyster and his gang, Goofy informs Chief O’Hara who in turn orders Agent F-310 to investigate. Agent F-310, Horace Horsecollar, is interrupted at this point from having rampant sexual intercourse with yet another Disney character, Clarabelle Cow. In the meantime, whilst incarcerated, Mickey persuades Minnie into performing mutual oral sex, insisting that “this may be our last time together,” all too unaware of the Air Pirates voyeuristic tendencies. Before too long, however, the Air Pirates jettison the two lovers through a trap door, in which time Minnie is captured by a pterodactyl and Mickey is accosted by a piano-wielding gorilla…so ending the first thrilling instalment of the Air Pirates Funnies.
Silly Sympathies Presents The Mouse, Air Pirates Funnies #1 [Author’s amendments]
In Air Pirates Funnies #2, published in August 1971, the story with Mickey Mouse continues in similarly deplorable fashion. Mickey manages to escape from the gorilla and after encountering crocodiles and elephants, he makes his way through the jungle. Minnie. It transpires, is released from the pterodactyl, landing in a bat-filled cave in which she meets the ‘Bat Bandit’, Don Jollio. Mickey, with the aid of a troop of elephants, rescues Minnie from the cave allowing both mice to flee on horseback. The story ends with the two mice in the company of Don Jollio, held at gunpoint, and forced to consume “these peels” from a bag labelled “DOPE”. The LSD intoxicated tale was originally meant to be continued in a third issue of Air Pirates Funnies, however, it was never published.
The effect that these two comics was to have in copyright law and amongst underground movements in the United States was unprecedented. The efforts that the Walt Disney Company went to in order to stop these comics was justified under the notion that they were suffering immeasurable damage to their reputation and creative exploits. Certainly, these comics were disrespectful and crude, but slanderous and damaging, perhaps less so. The depiction of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in bestial acts of depravity is shocking but it has done nothing to tarnish the impeccable image of Disney’s most popular mascot and namesake. Commentators of the time noted that the court case against the Air Pirates was that bit too heavy-handed, despite the fact that there was probably very little economic damage done to the Walt Disney Company. The Harvard Law Review noted in 1984 that:
"[it] seem[s] comprehensible only as veiled attempts by judges both to vent their outrage at mimicry that they consider tasteless and offensive and to vindicate the moral rights of the authors. Admittedly, parody’s sometimes stinging effect may dampen the creative efforts of some original authors, but such disincentive is subjective, speculative, and properly beyond the reach of American copyright law" (vol. 97, no. 6, p. 1405).
The case of Walt Disney Productions v. The Air Pirates is a rather humorous reminder of the ever present threat of copyright law and its effect on staunching creative parody. To this day there are constant copyright infringements of Disney created material. Policing such actions is a tall ordeal for the Walt Disney Company and is certainly not a cheap affair; the action taken against the Air Pirates cost the company a substantial $2 million in legal fees alone. The scope is wide, therefore, for activists, anti-capitalists and spoofers alike to engage in funny, if not defamatory, practices against the oligarch of popular, American entertainment.
Please see ‘Disney Copyright Violations?’ for a collective record of such attempts:
The case for appeal (5 September 1978) can be found in full through the following link:
581 F.2d 751 (1978) Walt Disney Productions, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. The Air Pirates et al., Defendants-Appellants. Nos. 75-3116, 75-3243. United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. September 5, 1978.
Air Pirates Funnies Vol. 1, No. 1-2, (Hell Comics, July-August 1971).Copyright © 1971 The Air Pirates: Dan O’Neil, Ted Richards, Gary Hallgreen and [Lil’] Bobby London.
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