Is Mickey Mouse Mad at Roy Abramsohn?
At first glance, Roy Abramsohn is one of the lucky few.
A struggling actor, he got to star in a small film. And then that film, Escape From Tomorrow, miraculously made it into the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
What's more, Escape From Tomorrow (shot for very little money and without any obvious marketing hooks) is getting a huge amount of media attention - it was in the news even prior to its premiere.
Why is a no-budget black and white film causing such a stir?
Here's why: Escape From Tomorrow was filmed inside Disney's theme parks and hotels in Florida and California - without Disney's permission.
What sort of crazy people make a scripted feature-length film on the property of one of the most litigious entertainment companies in the history of litigation - without asking permission?
Perhaps, crazy people who understand how corporate PR and the complicated area of the law known as fair use work in the real world?
Paradoxically, Roy Abramsohn and the director of Escape From Tomorrow, Randy Moore, may never see Disney's lawyers in court.
That's because Disney may be reluctant to give the filmmakers more attention than they've already received. Furthermore, some copyright experts believe that the harshness of Randy Moore's critique of the happiest place on earth may actually protect the film (if Disney did sue) because critical commentary has special protection under US copyright law.
As a practical matter, Disney may decide not to sue for copyright infringement. A court case would certainly give Roy Abramsohn and Randy Moore even more publicity. So we may never see the legal arguments made before a judge... But, in a January 22, 2013 post to The New Yorker, Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu argues that making Escape From Tomorrow inside Disney property and therefore depicting Disney's trademarked and copyrighted iconography (while probably a violation of the agreement that the cast and crew made when they bought their tickets to the Magic Kingdom) is NOT a violation of copyright or trademark law.
As Tim Wu writes: "As commentary on the social ideals of Disney World, it seems to clearly fall within a well-recognized category of fair use, and therefore probably will not be stopped by a court using copyright or trademark laws."
It's not clear what Disney will do, and there are legal scholars who might challenge Tim Wu's fair use analysis. But Escape From Tomorrow does raise issues that every indie filmmaker and online storyteller should understand.
As Tim Wu writes: "“Escape from Tomorrow” ultimately raises a larger question of what you might call cultural freedom, or the freedom to comment on or reimagine the great cultural icons of our time. It’s the same question raised by fan fiction and remix artists like Jeff Koons. Disney would surely have preferred that Moore and his team have asked for permission before making the film. But it seems unlikely to have been granted: and a world where Disney gets to determine everything said about Disney World would be a poor place indeed."
What's the ultimate message of Roy Abramsohn and Randy Moore's audacious gamble? As Disney's copyright character Mulan has observed: "The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all."