I am reading a fascinating book about the history of animated cartoons. Written by Reid Mitenbuler and titled, Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation, the book provides a much-needed look at an art form and a business that never seems to get the attention it deserves.
As I read the book, I was struck by how little has changed when it comes to intellectual property and copying. Consider animator Pat Sullivan’s Felix The Cat. His Feline Follies, released in 1919 and featuring Felix, launched a franchise that generated substantial revenues from product tie-ins.
How popular was Felix? Mr. Mitenbuler puts it this way:
Men wore Felix tiepins and women wore Felix brooches. Smoke shops sold Felix cigars and auto-makers sold Felix radiator caps. Infants smelling of Felix baby oil napped under Felix blankets….The merchandising rights earned Pat Sullivan $100,000 per year.
I checked for inflation and found that $100,000 in 1919 would equal $2,628,575 in today’s dollars. Not bad for a cartoon cat. Then, like today, there were those who wanted to get a share of the action and came out with their own black and white cat characters.
One of those copiers was, Walt Disney. I was surprised to learn that before he created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse, a struggling Walt Disney produced a character who looked an awful lot like Felix the Cat. His name was Julius the Cat, and he appeared in 47 cartoons before Disney abandoned him for more original work.
It is to Walt Disney’s credit that he want on to create original work and a remarkable career. If it is true that copying is the sincerest form of flattery then having Walt Disney copy your work has to be the ultimate form of flattery. Still, it is ironic that a company that fights so hard to protect its intellectual property got started in part by being a copy cat.