Dear Walt: SOPA/Protect IP and the Walt Disney Company

by Daniel Brenton on January 1, 2012

in Politics

An open letter to the late Walt Disney, disturbing him in the Afterlife about the Disney-supported Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Walt Disney

Start: Dear Walt —

Now, I realize you’re dead, but I’ve got something to say to you.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been watching two companion pieces of legislation move through the House and the Senate — the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) in the House, and “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011″ (Protect IP or PIPA) in the Senate. This legislative monstrosity threatens to give unparalleled power to a league of corporations that would abuse it endlessly, impose crippling compliance restrictions on existing internet companies and make many new ventures impossible, and be a back door to censorship of an unprecedented level for this country.

Just think of it as “catching up with China,” and you’ll have the idea.

The reason I’m disturbing you is that after I did only a little bit of research, I found this list of supporters for PIPA:

    Recording Industry Association of America
    Independent Film & Television Alliance
    Motion Picture Association of America
    National Association of Theater Owners
    Association of American Publishers
    American Federation of Musicians
    American Association of Independent Music
    Xerox Corporation
    CBS Corporation
    Comcast
    Walmart
    AFL-CIO
    U. S. Chamber of Commerce

… and so on. And then my mind skidded to a screeching halt when I hit this name:

    The Walt Disney Company

The Walt Disney Company? Are you serious?

Yes. They were.

Walt, I had to think about this for a good long time.

You were a master showman, and I know full well you were a shrewd entrepreneur. Disneyana has always had a place in my heart, as long as I remember …

… at the age of three, I remember my father bringing home an eight-millimeter projector for some forgotten reason, and we watching “Motormania,” starring your classic character Goofy. I recall watching it both forwards, and backwards …

… one of the earliest books given to me was a collection of tall tales from the wild west, the name of which escapes me, featuring Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Davey Crockett …

… and, of course, my first visit to Disneyland. (I recall a photograph which I’m sure has long since vanished of a pre-pubescent me in Tomorrowland staring at the legs of what was probably a pretty girl by the standards of the time wearing a space suit with a fairly short skirt. What was going on in that space travel-obssessed head of mine was, genuinely, the rejection of this representation of a space suit because it would be completely ineffective in protecting the woman from the vacuum of space. Little did I realize at the time that this bit of cheesecake was probably an expression of your intent to entertain fathers as well as families on the family vacation … you dog.)

And I’ve been to Disneyland so many times I’d have to take a while to try to get a count. I’ve long since lost track.

Hell, Walt — I went to Disneyland for my honeymoon.

And then I see this.

I did a quick search on Maplight, a site that, among other things, monitors political contributions. Doing this search I ran across a figure of $146,750 of contributions from your company, from between January 2010 to today.

But looking at the overall money trails for both SOPA and PIPA, which must total in the tens of millions of dollars, I’m feeling pretty sure I’m not finding everything.

What Would Jesus Walt Do?

At first blush I found myself thinking that you, Walt, wouldn’t get behind something like this. After all, you were always a proponent of new technologies. Beyond Tomorrowland, and all the fascinating gadgetry of your theme parks, I vividly remember your educational cartoons about “the atomic genie,” and the help you provided to Wernher von Braun in popularizing space flight.

I mean, how could “Uncle Walt” not love the internet?

Now, we both know Eisner would support SOPA and PIPA in a New York second, the corporate parasite that he was. But you?

Walt, do you remember the movie Titanic? (Yes, I know you were dead long before James Cameron even thought about doing movies, but dead people can go to movies for free, right?) There was the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson is trying to talk Kate Winslet’s Rose DeWitt Bukater out of throwing herself off of the ship. She implores him to leave her alone while she nerves herself up to commit suicide, and he refuses, telling her, “I’m involved.”

Walt, I’m certainly no Leonardo DiCaprio, but I’m involved.

I really had no choice but to ask myself: What Would Walt Do?

I needed to look. Here’s what I found:

  • Back in 1947, you testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and fingered Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance (who were all animators for you previously, and labor union organizers as well) as Communist agitators. Hilberman was blacklisted, and history has shown that Sorrell had clear connections, but it is not clear about the others. I can sort of understand wanting to show your colors as a businessman during the rise of the Red Scare, but this was nascent McCarthyism, which has left a bad taste in any thinking American’s mouth.
  • I found a revealing quote from this page about the creation of your Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow (EPCOT) project: “The Disney anger flares at what has happened in Anaheim. Speculators have snatched up surrounding property and, with light regard for justice, are cashing in on Disneyland’s success. Prices are astronomical, liquor is sold to minors, in spots a honky-tonk atmosphere batters the reputation of his Magic Kingdom and no one has contributed a cent to the source of prosperity.”

    One can understand the desire for orderliness around your edifice for family entertainment, but I can’t help but trip over the phrases “… the prices are astronomical …” and “… and no one has contributed a cent to the source of prosperity.” I beg to differ, Walt: the Disney Hotels were the ones with the “astronomical” prices — in my memory, the offsite hotels were always less expensive. This frankly sounds to me an awful lot like greed rearing its ugly head. At some point your corporation began a “Good Neighbor Hotel” discount program, apparently to combat some of this, and I suspect the participants are paying heavy tribute for the benefit.

  • And reading about your original EPCOT concept, all the residents would be working renters, and be asked (oh, all right, as a condition of staying forced) to defer the responsibility of governing to The Company: “Disney felt that the corporation and not traditional government could best create jobs, prevent poverty, improve education, and provide for the common good. In fact, he believed that a corporate structure should replace democracy itself in EPCOT. Disney’s utopia would have no popular government, but would be managed by those who knew best, the Disney Company and its corporate partners …”

    Walt, this sounds a little like “Big Brother knows best” to me, and I won’t apologize for saying it.

“Uncle Walt” Has Left the Building

Walt Disney.I really felt, in my heart of hearts, that you, “Uncle Walt,” being the fan of innovation that you were and also having been bright enough to actually listen to your technical experts, would have looked at this differently than the powers that be in the organization now, and would have wanted a better way to address the problems of internet piracy.

But now, I’m not so sure.

Walt, you had so much of my childhood, and now that’s tarnished beyond repair. On top of this, you owned a good share of “the child of all ages” inside yours truly, and then a few powerful individuals acting in your name sign on to create a sledgehammer to kill the flies of internet piracy, flies that this weapon will never be able to kill anyway, a cudgel that will be abused by those who have no business having any power at all.

Your inheritors have done nothing less than set themselves up to be a mechanism for censorship, and betray the American Ideal.

And how do we fight this, Walt? Really, how? If by some miracle the denizens of the internet such as myself could orchestrate some way to boycott the ABC/Disney conglomerate and starve it of any revenue at all, who would we hurt? Not the miscreants behind this abomination. No, the rank and file of tens of thousands of employees would be the ones who would be sacrificed and suffer. The top-level managers would blithely jump with their golden or platinum parachutes, and once they dusted themselves off probably go subvert other eager corporate octopi.

I hope you’re pleased with yourself, Walter Elias Disney. I can now only wonder if you would have betrayed me, too.

If I ever go back to Disneyland, it’s going to be a damned long time.

By the way: if anyone has a problem with me using the image of Walter Elias Disney above, you’ll need to go talk to NASA. Everything they do is in the public domain … unless, of course, you happen to have a problem with that, too.

• • •

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

End

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