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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.)

Make Your Case

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]