How professional designers gamed Disney’s lawyers into protecting their income

Disney’s latest legal spat with Scarlett Johansson is a timely reminder of just how litigious the ‘House of Mouse’ can be.

Disney’s latest legal spat with Scarlett Johansson is a timely reminder of just how litigious the ‘House of Mouse’ can be.

Johansson, one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, took legal action against the media giant after Disney’s decision to release Black Widow – the latest film in the ever-growing Marvel franchise – in theatres and streaming services simultaneously.

To viewers, the decision appears relatively reasonable – with a pandemic still raging through most of the Western world many fans may prefer the comfort of their own lounge room to a cinema filled with socially-distanced strangers.

For Johansson however, the move could cost her somewhere in the vicinity of US $50 million, as her earnings are based largely on box office takings.

Given that fact, Johansson’s contract reportedly specified the film would be released exclusively through cinemas originally, to maximise her income for her starring role – and it’s this breach of contract that’s landed Disney in hot water.

Bob Chapek, Disney’s CEO, defended the company’s decision and said it was the right thing to do to reach the largest number of viewers they could.

Disney’s willingness to defend itself should come as no surprise, given the business’ reputation as one of the most litigious in America.

And while that might not be good news for the likes of Johansson, other creatives have found a way to weaponise that same eagerness to protect their own incomes, without ever doing business with Disney themselves.

Bots vs Lawyers

In late 2019, self-employed artists took to Twitter to lament the theft of their designs by ‘bots’ – automated accounts run by algorithms to perform certain actions.

These bots were scraping twitter for images that other twitter users were responding to with phrases like “I want this on a t-shirt”, and when they found one, they would download the image, upload it onto an online store, and use key search terms to serve twitter users with targeted ads.

The original artists never saw a cent.

The phenomenon became a common problem for many artists, but also raised an intriguing question – what if those same bots ‘accidentally’ stole intellectual property owned by one of the world’s largest and most lawyer-friendly media empires?

The hypothesis: Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, Disney’s lawyers would spring into action to save us from the marauding bots, if only reluctantly.

To test this, independent artists across the Twittersphere began uploading images blatantly ripping off well-known characters and revelling in their crimes with self-aware slogans including “We committed copyright infringement and want to be sued by Disney”.

Artists asked their followers to comment using the key phrases in question and sure enough, the bots crawled out from the digital ether to mistakenly steal from Mickey himself.

Other artists turned to Nintendo – another company well acquainted with copyright law – to enlist further (and again reluctant) help in shutting down the bots.

In the end it didn’t quite play out how many had hoped; it was always unlikely Disney would expend its precious resources fighting anonymous bot-driven businesses on twitter and even if they did, demand for bootleg shirts would likely be strong enough that new businesses would simply pop up to fill the gap.

But the arts community’s valiant efforts do make for a great story. Maybe one day we’ll see a Disney adaptation.



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