The Rights of a Rabbit

In the course of my research for my upcoming post, I came across an unusual story. It is part of the larger story of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of the first “characters” created by Walt Disney. If you’ve never heard of Oswald and you’re wondering why rabbit is so obscure while the mouse is so famous, the reason is that Walt lost the rights to draw the rabbit. Walt didn’t like the deal he was getting from Universal Studios, and they refused to pay him any more, so he left, but they kept Oswald. Walt went on to create Mickey, and Universal cried in their beer.

Time went on, and Mickey rose to a great price while Oswald languished in obscurity. The Walt Disney Company decided that they wanted the rabbit back, and Universal was willing to let go, for a price. So Disney and Universal made a trade: Disney got the rights to Oswald, and Universal got the contract for Al Michaels, plus some other stuff related to sports coverage.

Now, both Disney and Univeral seemed happy with this deal, but it strikes me as very strange. Consider what Univeral got: a valuable new employee, with decades of experience and a large fanbase. Consider what Disney got: the right to draw pictures of a certain kind of made-up rabbit.

How does this make any sense?

But to answer my own rhetorical question: Disney didn’t just get the right to draw a rabbit, they got the rights to prevent other people from drawing that rabbit. That’s something worth plenty of money, and that’s how the trade makes sense.

Perhaps, one day in the future, a generation wiser than ours will look back on our strange permission culture and wonder why we did such a thing to ourselves. Will we be able to provide a meaningful answer? Or will we have to confess to a kind of madness, that compelled us to prevent each other from doing harmless things, out of some strange idea of propriety?

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I sure hope it’s better than what we’ve currently got.

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