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Why Isn't Mickey Mouse in the Public Domain?

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Image from the Patent and Trademark Museum. Roger Richards/The Washington Times/Landov

From his humble beginnings as a steamboat stowaway to his current gig as the Magic Kingdom’s most famous resident, Mickey Mouse has worked a lot of jobs. He even moonlights as the poster rodent for copyright protection.

In 1998, Mickey scampered to Capitol Hill when a bill proposing a 20-year extension of U.S. copyright limits was brought before the Senate. Under the planned revisions, corporations (for example: the Walt Disney Company) would retain exclusive rights to original characters and content for a period of 95 years. The previous limit, set in 1973, guaranteed rights for just 75 years. (The changes would also affect works created by individuals, protecting them for an additional 70 years following the death of their author, up from 50 years in 1973.)

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Opponents of the bill argued that such extensions would make it arbitrarily more difficult to legitimately procure older items that, according to previous laws, should long since have passed into the public domain. The new terms, it was said, threatened to tamper not only free speech, but cultural and scientific advancement as well.

Proponents argued that the extensions bolstered free thinking by encouraging people to create new works, rather than appropriate the works of others.

In any event, two more decades of exclusive rights meant potential billions to the Disney corporation, and Mickey wasn’t afraid to break out his claws to guarantee they got them. In fact, the company’s lobbying efforts were so extensive, the bill is often referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

Thanks in large part to Disney’s efforts, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (named to posthumously honor Cher’s former babe, the U.S. Congressman from California) was eventually signed into law.

Why the Big Push in 1998?

The mousetrap was about to snap shut on the Walt Disney Company.

Under the previous copyright timeline, Mickey Mouse (or, anyway, his earliest incarnation: a gloveless boating enthusiast from the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie) was set to enter the public domain in 2003. This meant that one of pop culture’s most visible icons — according to the company, 98% of the world’s children between the ages of 3 and 11 display some awareness of Mickey — was about to become freely available for anyone to use.

Interestingly, 1998 wasn’t the first time Steamboat Willie came close to becoming Free Willie, only to have copyright laws extended at the last moment; it’s happened on at least four occasions. The past two instances of copyright term extensions, in particular, have occurred just as Willie was about to sail into the public domain.

The irony of the situation is that the original Steamboat Willie cartoon was itself a direct parody of a 1928 live-action silent film titled Steamboat Bill, Jr., now freely available in the public domain.

In other words: Steamboat Bill is up for grabs, but the cartoon he inspired is off the table.

Providing a bizarre footnote to the copyright issue is a theory put forth by some scholars that suggests the earliest incarnations of Mickey's copyright laws are technically void, meaning that the original Mickey from Steamboat Willie could, in fact, already be part of the public domain. The notion, which Disney disputes, stems from an ambiguity in the opening credits of the 1928 Steamboat Willie film. While legal precedents suggest the claims of invalid copyright might, in fact, be legitimate, the only way to test the theory would be for someone to dare take on Disney's billion dollar legal shotgun – the financial equivalent of playing Russian roulette.

Disney and the Daycare Centers

Although the Walt Disney name is synonymous with wholesome family entertainment, Disney didn’t become the world’s largest media conglomerate by playing nice. In fact, the company has a history of mercilessly pursuing (and suing) anyone who uses their intellectual property without permission.

A famous example of Disney’s cutthroat approach to brand control occurred in 1989, when the company threatened to sue the owners of three Florida daycare centers who had decorated their buildings’ walls with unauthorized images of several trademarked Disney characters. The issue never made it to court, as the owners of the centers voluntarily painted new murals, featuring Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, over the Disney designs. (Universal Studios swooped in to volunteer the use of Scooby-Doo and Fred Flintstone’s likenesses after news of the Disney debacle spread.)

Of course, even without the copyright extensions, it would still be next to impossible for anyone outside of Disney to use Mickey without permission, since he, like all Disney creations, is trademarked. Unlike copyrights, which do have dates of expiration, company trademarks are valid for as long as the company uses those trademarked items commercially. As long as Disney keeps Mickey on their employment roster, no one else can touch him.

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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers
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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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MGM
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entertainment
15 Inconceivable Facts About The Princess Bride
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MGM

It's no wonder The Princess Bride is such a beloved film: It's action-packed but still lighthearted, sweet but not saccharine, silly but still smart—and, of course, endlessly quotable. Fortunately, in 2012, the movie's leading man Cary Elwes was inspired to write a behind-the-scenes book about the making of the movie in honor of its 25th anniversary, for which he interviewed nearly all of the key cast and crew (sadly, André the Giant, who played Fezzik, passed away in 1993).

Pulling from the impressively detailed text of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride and various interviews Elwes and others have given over the years, we rounded up a series of fun facts and anecdotes sure to delight any fan of the film, which was released 30 years ago today.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR THE AUTHOR'S DAUGHTERS.

William Goldman, who wrote the novel The Princess Bride in 1973 and penned the screenplay, told Entertainment Weekly that, "I had two little daughters, I think they were 7 and 4 at the time, and I said, 'I’ll write you a story. What do you want it to be about?' One of them said 'a princess' and the other one said 'a bride.' I said, 'That’ll be the title.'"

2. BOTH THE DIRECTOR AND THE LEADING MAN ALREADY KNEW AND LOVED THE STORY BEFORE FILMING EVEN BEGAN.

Cary Elwes' stepfather had given him Goldman's book in 1975, when the future actor was just 13 years old. Rob Reiner, who directed the movie, first read the book in his 20s when Goldman gave it to his father. It quickly became Reiner's favorite book of all time, and he had long wanted to turn it into a movie—but he had no idea that many before him had tried and failed.

3. FOR A LONG TIME, NO ONE WAS ABLE TO MAKE THE MOVIE.

At one point or another, Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, John Boorman, and François Truffaut all tried to get the book made into a movie, but due to a series of unrelated incidents—"green-lighters" getting fired, production houses closing—it languished for years. (In one of these proto-Princess Brides, a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to play Fezzik.) 

After several false starts, Goldman bought back the rights to the book. The movie only got made because Reiner had built up so much good will with movies like This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing that the studio, 20th Century Foxoffered to make any project of his choice.

4. MANDY PATINKIN FELT A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE CHARACTER OF INIGO MONTOYA.

Andre the Giant, Mandy Patinkin and Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride (1987).
MGM

"The moment I read the script, I loved the part of Inigo Montoya," Patinkin told Entertainment Weekly. "That character just spoke to me profoundly. I had lost my own father—he died at 53 years old from pancreatic cancer in 1972. I didn’t think about it consciously, but I think that there was a part of me that thought, If I get that man in black, my father will come back. I talked to my dad all the time during filming, and it was very healing for me."

5. ANDRÉ THE GIANT COULD REALLY, REALLY DRINK.

Three bottles of cognac and 12 bottles of wine reportedly made him just a little tipsy. When the cast would go out for dinner, André—who, according to Robin Wright, ordered four appetizers and five entrees—would drink out of a 40-ounce beer pitcher filled with a mix of liquors, a concoction he called "The American."

6. ANDRÉ HAD AN UNCONVENTIONAL METHOD FOR LEARNING HIS LINES.

Reiner and Goldman met André, then a famous wrestler, at a bar in Paris. "I brought him up to the hotel room to audition him. He read this three-page scene, and I couldn’t understand one word he said," Reiner recalled. "I go, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? He’s perfect physically for the part, but I can’t understand him!’ So I recorded his entire part on tape, exactly how I wanted him to do it, and he studied the tape. He got pretty good!"

7. WILLIAM GOLDMAN WAS INCREDIBLY NERVOUS ON THE SET.

Of all the projects he’d written and worked on—which included the Academy Award-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Goldman loved The Princess Bride best of all. This manifested itself as extreme nervousness about the project. Reiner invited Goldman to be on set for the duration of the filming—which Goldman did not want to do, saying, “I don’t like being on set. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s boring”—but on the first day, he proved to be a slight nuisance. The first couple takes were plagued by a barely-audible chanting, which turned out to be Goldman praying things would go well. And when Wright's character's dress caught on fire, he panicked, yelling, "Oh my god! Her dress is on fire!"—even though Goldman himself had written that into the script.

8. WALLACE SHAWN WAS BRILLIANT, BUT ALWAYS ON EDGE.

Wallace Shawn and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

Shawn, who played Vizzini the Sicilian, really is, like his character, a man of "dizzying intellect." He has a history degree from Harvard and studied philosophy and economics at Oxford. In fact, on a day off from filming The Princess Bride, Shawn went to Oxford to give a guest lecture on British and American literature. But Shawn was inconsolably nervous for the entirety of filming.

After learning from his agent that Reiner had originally wanted Danny DeVito for the part, Shawn was wracked with insecurity, perpetually convinced that he was going to be fired after every bad take. "Danny is inimitable," Shawn said. "Each scene we did, I pictured how he would have done it and I knew I could never possibly have done it the way he could have done it," he said.

9. THE DUEL BETWEEN WESTLEY AND INIGO WAS EXCRUCIATINGLY RESEARCHED AND REHEARSED.

Goldman spent months researching 17th-century swordfighting manuals to craft Westley and Inigo's duel; all the references the characters make to specific moves and styles are completely accurate. Then Elwes and Patinkin, neither of whom had much (if any) fencing experience, spent more months training to perfect it—right- and left-handed.

"I knew that my job was to become the world’s greatest sword fighter," Patinkin recalled in Elwes's book. "I trained for about two months in New York and then we went to London and Cary and I trained every day that we weren’t shooting for four months. There were no stuntmen involved in any of the sword fights, except for one flip in the air.” Even after months of pre-shooting training, the fencing instructors came to set and, when there were a few free minutes, would pull Elwes and Patinkin aside to work on the choreography for the scene, which was intentionally one of the last to be shot.

10. IT WAS ELWES'S IDEA TO DIVE HEADFIRST INTO THE "QUICKSAND."

That particular Fire Swamp stunt was accomplished by having a trap door underneath a layer of sand, below which there was foam padding for the actors to fall onto. Originally, the direction called for Westley to jump in feet-first after Buttercup, but Elwes argued this wasn't particularly heroic. Switching up the direction was a risky move—if the trap door wasn't opened at exactly the right instant, Elwes risked banging his head—or even breaking his neck. After the stunt double successfully executed the dive, Elwes himself tried it, and nailed it perfectly on the first take.

11. MIRACLE MAX REALLY WAS THAT FUNNY—AND YOU'RE NOT EVEN SEEING HIS BEST STUFF.

Billy Crystal brought two photos for his makeup artist, Peter Montagna, to draw inspiration from when creating Miracle Max: Crystal’s grandmother and Casey Stengel. As for the acting, Elwes wrote in his book, "For three days straight and 10 hours a day, Billy improvised 13th-century period jokes, never saying the same thing or the same line twice." Unfortunately for viewers, many of the improvised jokes were not fit for a family-friendly film. Only the cast and crew knows how funny his more crude Miracle Max takes were, but judging from the fact that Patinkin bruised a rib trying to stifle his laughter, as he recounts in the book, they were probably pretty good.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND CAROL KANE, WHO PLAYED HIS WIFE, INVENTED AN ENTIRE BACKSTORY.

Carol Kane and Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride (1987)
MGM

"Billy came over to my apartment in Los Angeles and we took the book and underlined things and made up a little more backstory for ourselves," Kane said. "We added our own twists and turns and stuff that would amuse us, because there’s supposed to be a long history—who knows how many hundreds of years Max and Valerie have been together?" How has that pair not gotten a spin-off film yet? 

13. ELWES FILMED MANY OF HIS SCENES WITH A BROKEN TOE.

Six weeks into production, André convinced Elwes to go for a spin on the ATV that was used to transport the larger man to and from filming locations because he didn’t fit in the van. Almost immediately, the vehicle hit a rocky patch and Elwes got his foot stuck between two mechanisms in the vehicle, breaking his big toe. The young actor tried to hide the injury from his director, but, of course, Reiner quickly found out. He didn't find a new Westley, as Elwes feared he might, but they did have to work some movie magic to allow Elwes to limp around in many of the scenes undetected.

14. ONE PARTICULAR ON-SCREEN INJURY WASN'T FAKED.

As soon as Westley recognizes Count Rugen as the six-fingered man, the script calls for the Count to knock our hero unconscious with the butt of his sword. In filming, Christopher Guest, who played Rugen, was naturally reluctant to really hit Elwes for fear of hurting him. Unfortunately, this reticence was reading on screen and take after take failed to look convincing. Finally, Elwes suggested Guest just go for, at least tap him on the head to get the reaction timing right. The tap came a little too hard, however, and Elwes was knocked legitimately unconscious; he later awoke in the hospital emergency room. It's that take, with Elwes actually passing out, that appears in the film.

15. ONE OF THE FINAL SCENES NEVER MADE IT INTO THE FINAL FILM.

In an alternate ending that was eventually cut, Fred Savage—who plays the initially reluctant audience to Peter Falk's reading of The Princess Bride—goes to his window after his grandfather has left and sees Fezzik, Inigo, Westley, and Buttercup all on their white horses.

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