Australian/US film copyright questions

I was thinking about doing some civil disobedience where I copy some late 1920’s/early 1930’s Disney cartoons and sell them. The aim would be to be prosecuted and then get on the news and say how they keep on extending copyrights on existing works, so that in effect, copyright is becoming never-ending.

  • I know it sounds bad to break the law but guys like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and their followers did… and I would be the one who is responsible for my actions. (IF I even followed through with this)

Anyway, it seems that those early Disney cartoons mightn’t be under copyright in Australia:

So it seems that in Australia, early Disney cartoons are no longer under copyright.

Maybe it isn’t illegal to sell copies of the cartoons in Australia, but what if I sold them to American people? (e.g. sending it through the mail or something) Could I be prosecuted? Would it be in an Australian civil court or something? Or criminal court? It might be hard to provoke Disney to prosecute me but with perseverance I could probably do it. (Assuming I did this at all…)

It would still be under copyright in the US since with the Sonny Bono Act, copyright for corporate owned works is now 95 years. (for individuals it is life + 70 years)

You need to talk to a lawyer, but most likely, this will cost you a fortune and get nothing in return. It doesn’t look like you have the slightest reason to base your defense.

AFAIK, Australia is a signatory of the Berne Convention, which essentially means that, if it’s copyrighted in any Berne Convention country, the copyright is enforceable in all. The relevant paragraph in the Berne Convention is this:

So the national law can be longer, and other countries are required to honor it.

In any case, Berne Convention requires a term of life plus 75 years (it is a mistake to blame the extention on Disney – the Berne Convention extended the term before the US did, and we were obligated to follow suit), so any Disney film would still be covered.

AFAIK, copyright violation in the U.S. is a civil offense and not a criminal one. I have to assume that this is also true in Australia, under the Berne Convention. A civil copyright case is not as likely to win you media coverage, but it is guaranteed to bankrupt you for the rest of your life. Civil disobedience means that you are willing to suffer the penalties in order to change the law. And you can’t change this law without changing it in every country in the world.

I also note that the Australian courts are protective of copyright:

Perhaps there is some organization that would be willing to provide a pro bono lawyer for you. You might want to check with a lawyer anyway to determine whether your plan would also violate Disney’s trademark protections, which are much more strongly enforced.

This is a very bad idea. IMO.

If I copyright a work in the US, the Berne Convention requires all signatory countries to honor that copyright. However, I don’t think that it requires its signatory countries to honor copyright expiration dates that are longer than those provided for in the Convention. In fact, the quoted section states specifically that countries can have domestic copyright laws that last longer than the Convention minimums. If countries were required to use the longest copyright duration of any other country, then all you’d need to do is find one country that allowed eternal copyrights and that would be that.

Thanks for your posts…


The idea is to try and get severely prosecuted in the hope that the public will reform copyright laws. It’s a bit similar to Gandhi’s tactics.

What about this?
"(1) The term of protection granted by this Convention shall be the life of the author and fifty years after his death.

(2) However, in the case of cinematographic works, the countries of the Union may provide that the term of protection shall expire fifty years after the work has been made available to the public with the consent of the author, or, failing such an event within fifty years from the making of such a work, fifty years after the making."

From here:

“Under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works states are required to provide copyright protection for a term of the life of the author plus fifty years. However, the convention permitted parties to provide for a longer term of protection, and between 1993 and 1996, the European Union provided protection for a term of the author’s life plus seventy years (see Directive on harmonising the term of copyright protection). The United States, however, only provided for the minimum required by the convention…
…In addition to Disney, Sonny Bono’s widow and Congressional successor Mary Bono and the estate of George Gershwin supported the act. Mary Bono, speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, noted that “Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever”, but that since she was “informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution”, Congress might consider Jack Valenti’s proposal of a copyright term of “forever less one day”…Proponents of the Bono Act argue…[no mention of Berne Convention]…”

According to that Australian link I gave earlier, if you’re doing stuff within Australia then only the Australian copyright durations apply. But if you’re right, it would just make it easy to cause trouble.

Yeah… though I think you can still be jailed for it… so maybe offenders would still be “criminals”.

What if I have no assets and don’t want to pay for any defence? I thought bankrupcies expired after a while…

But Australia is probably going to adopt the US’s copyright laws due to the free trade agreement (which currently is 95 year ownership for corporations, life + 70 years for individuals). Maybe I could at least stop that from happening.

Thanks for the tip. I wouldn’t want to break any other laws - my focus is on long copyrights.

I can understand why you say that but it is still pretty appealing to me.

Exapno Mapcase:
Some of the above post was for you too. (I wish I could edit my posts!)

In the U.S. you cannot be jailed for civil charges. In fact, that is the very definition of the difference between civil and criminal charges.

If you don’t pay for a defense any judge will summarily dismiss the charges. But if you do go through with it, any penalties can be laid against future earnings. And, again in the U.S., a bankruptcy does not wipe out these penalties.

But it doesn’t really matter. You have now proclaimed that you want to do this without being willing to accept the consequences. So much for civil disobedience.

Go start a web site instead.


Under U.S. copyright law, copyright infringement can be both a civil violation and a criminal offense.

Criminal infringement of a copyright.

That was exactly the link I was quoting. Paragraph 6 allows countries to set longer terms. However, if a work is under copyright is any member nation, then those copyrights have to be honored (otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point in the Berne Convention). Thus, for instance, Peter Pan is still under copyright in the US (despite it being published so long ago that it would normally be PD) because it has a special dispensation under British Law (the copyright has no end terma there).

The point is moot, however. You’d still be liable for trademark infringement by showing an image of the mouse without permission.

As far as the Widipedia quote is concerned (not necessarily a reliable source, BTW), the fact remains that the Berne Convention increased the term (partially to protect the ownership of Mein Kampf by the Bavarian government), which gave the US the impetus to make the change. Disney and Gershwin were certainly happy to push for it, but blaming them for it is simplistic.

This is a misunderstanding of what a trademark is. Trademark cannot be used to thwart the public domain copyright status of a work. Trademark infringement would occur only when the trademark is misappropriated for some other use. Popeye is also a registered trademark, yet several Popeye cartoons have fallen into the public domain, and the cartoons are sold by distributors who specialize in public domain films, with Popeye’s image (from a frame blowup) on the cover.

Thanks for setting us non-lawyers straight.

I find this section odd:

What exactly is that supposed to refer to? The total press run of a book or a record? No individual copyright violation would have that high a retail value. Does this mean that a single violation of a low-priced retail item would not be a criminal offense?

No, it does not. If you’ll click on the link I supplied above (Criminal Infringement of a Copyright), you’ll see that any violation of § 506(a)(1) with intent of commercial gain can result in a prison term of up to one year, regardless of the retail value of the infringement.

However, if you make 10 or more illegal copies within 180 days, and the total retail value of the infringement exceeds $2,500, you can receive a prison term of up to five years; a second offense can get you up to ten years.

The distinction between § 506(a)(1) and § 506(a)(2) is one of commercial intent; § 506(a)(2) does not require that commercial intent be proven. But both provide different levels of fines or prison terms based on the total retail value of the infringement, not the per-copy retail value.

BTW, I might also involve AOL-Time-Warner’s “Wizard of Oz” movie from 1939. It would only be mono though, since the idea is to copy the original 1939 version, not Dolby version. Perhaps I would be guilty of copying a remastered version, but the intent is to copy the original 1939 version. (That would be my argument)

Exapno Mapcase:

:confused: Well then I would just keep on being a Mickey Mouse pirate… if I did have a lawyer the main reason would be to extend the court case or make it more interesting - with the aim being just to make it more newsworthy.

Not only do I think it isn’t right for copyrights to last as long as they do, I don’t think copyright holders should get money from those who break copyrights on old works. So by trying to avoid paying them, that would also be civil disobedience with a “higher goal” in mind. I guess I wouldn’t have much of a problem with jail or community service though, assuming the copyright holder doesn’t financially benefit.

I’m trying to reach the masses and I don’t like writing high-quality stuff or making websites. I might put ads in newspapers or magazines though… or write more letters to magazines/newspapers/politicians (well maybe I’ve repeated myself when writing to politicians too much). I guess I could start a petition… though I’m not really a bubbly people-person…


Like Walloon says, I could handle it like the Popeye video distributers do. I think some early Superman cartoons might also be in the public domain - I mean I think I’ve seen them in cheap shops really really cheap… but “Superman” is probably still trademarked. I could maybe have screen captures or just text… I’d want to avoid trademark infringement. (maybe I’d need disclaimers, etc)

As far as the Widipedia quote is concerned (not necessarily a reliable source, BTW), the fact remains that the Berne Convention increased the term (partially to protect the ownership of Mein Kampf by the Bavarian government), which gave the US the impetus to make the change.

Since their works were soon expiring, they were particularly concerned.
This talks a bit about Disney’s involvement:
I remember a link a while ago that talked about other related parties, like Universal(?) studios, donating a total of $6 million around that time, but unfortunately I can’t find it.
Even if there was no copyright owner involvement, I’d still go after high profile copyright owners with old works - like Disney.

As far as “Mein Kampf” goes, don’t they realize that in several more years that latest copyright extension would just expire again? I wonder if they will continue to extend the copyrights on all works, just because of Mein Kampf, or if they’ll stop extending it, allowing it to go into the public domain - which makes it questionable as to why it was so important that Mein Kampf can’t get into the public domain. The other alternative is that Mein Kampf is an exception to the rule - if they do that then they should have done that in the first place and not unnecessarily extended the copyrights for everything. BTW, do you have a link that says that the Berne Convention involves durations that are longer than 50 years (after the death of the author)?


I was wondering, how do you work out what a second offence is? I mean, say I annoyed two companies by selling things and after I had done that, they took me to court with two separate court cases… would the second court case be the second offence? And say I annoyed one company by selling and distributing things in many ways… would that involve multiple offences? (i.e. so the “second offence” law comes into effect)

Your current concern that you may not be able to infringe copyright to a degree sufficient to get the light of publicity to shine upon your cause is, I suspect, very real. But the problem is not that you will have trouble committing offences or making yourself vulnerable to suit per se. Your problem is that some idealistic, naive (dare I guess) young crusader breaking the law to promote their fringe ideas concerning copyright length is only going to make the news if journos can’t find *anything * else to talk about, down to and including dog-up-tree stories.

Because frankly people are going to care more about a dog up a tree than your hijinks.

Ghandi indeed.

Alright, Gandhi then.

I’m fairly sure if handled properly it would get some publicity… more fresh exposure than I could get by just making a website (which I wouldn’t want to do).

In Australia, lawsuits involving major corporations and little people get a fair bit of coverage.
e.g. this one has been mentioned a few times in the last few months:,7204,7909109^15319^^nbv^15306,00.html

Though most people haven’t thought about it, I’m fairly sure that most people would agree after some discussion that never-ending copyrights aren’t good for consumers (“the people”) [they are like a pension for others long after the original authors have died]. Further copyright extensions would probably get passed so fast that people wouldn’t have a chance to protest much. So I’m protesting against the latest extensions in the US in the hope that Australia never adopts them (even though the FTA [free-trade agreement] would probably force them to). I don’t think undoing the copyright extensions or at least making sure they never get extended again is such an idealistic dream. I mean society worked fine when copyrights were much shorter. I am naive as far as not knowing the legal system goes (that’s why I’m asking questions) but I don’t think I’m wrong about my idea that long copyrights are unnecessary. It’s true that I’m pretty young - I’m 25 - but I think it would be less newsworthy if I waited a long time since I’d be less photogenic, and I’d probably have a longer history of being unemployed or having lousy jobs. (I’ve finished a B.Inf.Tech. degree though).

Interesting you should post a link to that Australian IT article the day after a massive series of raids here on Kazaa musicdownload movers and shakers.

I agree with Princhester…the reaction from the public will be a collective yawn and a frenzy of apathy.

Those two well-meaning clowns who wrote "“No War”’ on the Opera House sails, for example…how many people even know their names?

Well I don’t know that whether or not we know the names of the guys who painted that “No War” sign on the Opera House is the point. They got publicity because they did something outrageous and with high visual impact about something highly topical. Instant media interest.

Getting yourself into a spot of bother by distributing some pirated old movies, in the cause of making copyright periods shorter?