Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Legal history- Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

The legal issues in games and media fascinate me (at some point, I WILL do the Modern Warfare 2 legal controversy)   so I'll cover one that has covered more then 80 years.

The history of Oswald the Lucky rabbit.

Oswald was designed by Walt Disney in the 1920's when Walt worked for Universal studios.  Oswald made his debut in 1927
(please note the film was silent in it's debut, sound was added later)

Oswald became a run away success, Walt Disney managed to create and perfect several animation techniques, his team was coming together... and Universal told him they had to cut his funding.  He either had to cut his (small) staff or stop using some of the more time consuming techniques.  Neither of these options was acceptable to Walt Disney, so he left Universal with his artists. He attempted to take Oswald too, but Universal said they held the copyright. (This is the story I've heard from respected Disney blogs, but Wikipedia is citing a physical text that states that Universal hired away most of his animators and Walt signed a contract who's fine print said that Universal had the copyrights)

So, Walt Disney started over with a new IP (Mickey Mouse!)  a new studio (which he ran so all budget and artistic issues went by him)  and he took the world by storm.  In the meantime, Oswald was a successful competitor for a few years, but he gradually faded away.  Oswald grew more and more distant from his Disney base and grew less popular as Mickey grew.  His last main appearance was in 1943 and he had a cameo in a Woody Woodpecker short in 1951
(Yes, Oswald turned into a grey and white rabbit)

Oswald faded into obscurity and many of his cartoons were lost to time.  (Universal would snip frames for things, and others were just lost)

Oswald was known among Disney fans for a while, but he didn't attract any wide attention until 2007.

At this point, Disney (the company)  went to Universal and said they wanted to buy Oswald back.  After much debate, Disney traded Al Michaels (A NFL sports announcer. ABC lost NFL broadcasting rights and Al Michaels wanted to join his old NFL partner on NBC) The Disney Company owns the character in 2007 appearances on and they own all Disney produced shorts.  Universal retains rights to Oswald from c1929 to 2007 (Oswald appeared in some merchandise and comic books)As a side note, this is probably why Oswald's design is still very "original flavor".  While Mickey and his group have had a lot of time to go through redesigns and personality shifts, Disney has not had the chance to do this with Oswald.  He has very little brand awareness, so they need to establish a base look (his original one) then develop it from there.

Disney didn't do much with Oswald,( he cameos in some park stuff, appeared on a bit of merchandise, and a DVD of his shorts was released) until Epic Mickey (2010). However, considering a game's development cycle, it can be inferred that Oswald may have been bought for Epic Mickey.

Now that Disney owns Oswald, they need to increase his brand awareness. Other then Epic Mickey, they do have a few options. (What follows is pure speculation on my account)

1) Mickey Mouse Clubhouse:  the core group is the "Sensational Six"  (Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, Minnie, and Daisy) while characters who debuted with them or in the same time period make up the rest of the cast (Clarebelle Cow, Pete the Cat aka Pegleg Pete, Chip and Dale, Willie the Giant, etc) with a few original characters sprinkled into the mix.  Oswald has interacted with several of the characters in the past  (For example his foil in "O, what a Knight" is either Pete or someone who would develop into Pete.  Clarabelle is also somehow linked to him)  so his time period fits with theirs.  In addition, this would be a good way to introduce him to children so they can identify him later on in life.  While it would be slightly awkward to introduce him now, the episodes are stand alone and not every character appears in every episode.  That, combined with the target demographic, indicate a good way to at least test the waters of Oswald's sustainability outside of Epic Mickey.

2) Kingdom Hearts:  While we have visited a past version of Mickey before (Timeless River AKA Steamboat Willie), the development team has set up three alternate realms to the main KH verse.  We mostly play in the "Realm of Light", but there is a previously established "Realm of Darkness" in which several characters have gotten lost.  In fact, at one point there where three or four groups of people in or near it and they only reason they interacted is due to characters seeking the others out.  Kingdom Hearts II and Birth By Sleep mention a "Realm of Twilight"  which hasn't received  much elaboration.  All we know is that some worlds live inbetween the realms of light and dark and are a bit of a buffer or barrier between the two.  Finally, KH:3D is introducing a "Realm of Sleep".  Apparently, it is for those worlds which should be back in the light, but could not make it and now sleep instead.  We'll find out more when the game actually comes out.  Any of those realms would be a decent excuse for why Oswald hasn't been mentioned before.  (This would work even better if Oswald was a lost keyblade wielder who got sucked into the realms while traveling)

3)  The parks themselves:  Oswald has only cameod in the parks.  Toontown would have been a very good way to introduce Oswald, but it was demolished last year.  Oswald cartoons can be put in the main street theater, but he needs to be expanded beyond there.  I'm not sure where, but the parks would be a good way to attract attention.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because a few days ago, a respected Disney fanblog called "Stitch Kingdom" posted and then removed an announcement for Epic Mickey 2.  While it has been confirmed Disney was looking into Epic Mickey 2 (A survey went out to gauge people's reactions to several titles a few months ago) If the information is true then Epic Mickey 2 will be multiplatform (which makes sense, motion controls on the non Wii systems have improved dramatically), and it will have 2 person split screen Co-op with one person controlling Mickey while the other person controls Oswald. 

What do you think?  Do you like Oswald?  Do you want to see an Epic Mickey 2?  How should Disney use Oswald now that they own him again? 


  1. Oswald has been on my mind since I saw the cover for GameInformer showing the game. I truly did feel sorry for the lost son of Walt Disney. I really hope they use him. He really could use the time and fans. I've always been a huge fan of Disney. I would kill to see him in Kingdom Hearts, as well as his wife and kids.

    1. Well, with the rights he should have a chance at SOME point...

  2. I would LOVE to see Oswald show up in the Realm of Darkness or the Realm of Sleep in a future Kingdom Hearts game! And I definitely like the idea of him becoming a character in "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" even though I don't watch the show. It'd be nice to see him interacting more with Mickey and pals and become a true member of that core group, now that he's back where he belongs at Disney!

    I wonder if they'd be able to show some of the Disney Oswald cartoons on the Disney Channel, like the "Have a Laugh" segments? The animation's pretty sketchy compared to today, but "Trolley Troubles" was cute and definitely the sort of thing that would've had me laughing myself silly when I was little kid.

    1. It should really turn into the ... well, I would do "Magnificent Seven" but it's copyrighted and doesn't alliterate. Honestly, I love the idea of Oswald being a lost brother of Mickey's. I want to see him in the core group!

      I'm sure they can, but I haven't seen any yet. It's a great idea though.