It all began when a young cartoonist of limited draughtsmanship, named Dan O'Neill, was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle to produce a strip for them. The strip he produced was an idiosyncratic little number called "Odd Bodkins". Its delivery was crude but its content was interesting enough to cause the Chronicle a few headaches over the years. O'Neill began the strip in 1964 as the war in Vietnam was beginning to escalate and San Francisco became the hippie centre of the world.
He ignored requests to censor his work until a decision was made to remove it. It was restored after the newspaper received written protests but, so the story goes, O'Neill, figuring that its days were numbered and angry that he did not own the copyright of "Odd Bodkins" hit on an idea for revenge. He began peppering his strip with Disney characters possibly expecting the Chronicle to be sued for breach of copyright. Disney didn't take the bait.
So as soon as he left the Chronicle he decided to have another go at Disney. He recruited Bobby London, Shary Flenniken, Gary Hallgren and Ted Richards at a rock concert. These became the Air Pirates, so named after characters in a Disney cartoon. O'Neill proceeded to school them in the 30's Disney style of Floyd Gottfredson. He was helped by the fact that all three of them could draw better than he could and they were soon producing artwork that had a beautiful old fashioned look but which featured famous and not so famous Disney characters fucking each other and taking drugs.
After a little prompting, the comics just weren't that popular, Disney was persuaded to take out a law suit in 1971 alleging breach of copyright. By this point the Air Pirates had produced two comics worth of copyright infringing material in the shape of "Air Pirates Funnies" #1 and #2. The resulting case was to last until 1979 and cost Disney £2 million.
In there defence the Air Pirates relied on the first amendment and the concept of “fair use” doctrine, which allows the right to freely reproduce limited amounts of copyrighted material in limited situations. Disney succeeded in getting a temporary injunction against the Pirates to stop them printing a comic with any more Disney characters in it. The Pirates, showing a mixture of bravado, ignorance and plain stupidity proceeded to print "The Tortoise and the Hare" a comic which reprinted part of Air Pirates 2, as well as containing its own fair share of copyright infringements (incidentally the comic contains an O'Neill strip called "The Early Adventures of Roger Rabbit". Later O'Neill sued Disney for breach of copyright when "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" came out. His action was ironic but unsuccessful).
As the years dragged on some of the Pirates regretted the fact that they had ever got involved in the project. Flenniken was never actually indicted but Bobby London had misgivings about breaching copyright from the start but claims that he believed O'Neill when he said that Disney's copyrights had expired. But generally all agreed that they wanted to put the trial behind them so that they could get on with their lives.
By 1979, when the judgement was made, the underground was dead but, thanks to O'Neill, it still had a little life left in the corpse. The Air pirates lost their case but O'Neill immediately published a four page Mickey and Minnie Mouse story in CoEvolution Quartertly #21, which commented on the whole trial. At this point the Disney lawyers wanted to put O'Neill in jail but instead settled for an agreement that the artists would not infringe disney copyright again. No money ever appears to have been recovered from the Air Pirates. Ironically London later worked for Disney.
At the time of the trial not all cartoonists agreed with the Pirates stance on copyright, if indeed they had a stance but the case did generate a lot of support from cartoonists and Disney animators. With hindsight the strips look quaint because the cartoonists caught that old fashioned look so well. London and Flenniken's styles continued to appear old fashioned even when they used their own characters such as London's "Dirty Duck" (which is very like George Herriman) and Flenniken's "Trots and Bonnie". O'Neill is doing his Odds Bodkin strip once more but his website stresses that all his work is copyright.
The facts behind the Air Pirates case are difficult to sort out and are clouded by a combination of drug addled mental confusion, age, evasion, self promotion, self delusion and a certain bravado after the event. If you want to find out more the best book to read is the excellent "The Pirates and the Mouse" by Bob Levin.
This page itself offends copyright but is in the nature of a review and comment and so hopefully constitutes a form of fair use.
Note: This is not the first time that Disney has had problems with copyright. Neither is it the first time that it's characters have been used in scenes with sexual content. One of the most famous is the Disneyland memorial orgy drawn (originally in black and white) by Wallace Wood for satirist Paul Krassner's radical humor publication "The Realist"
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