It’s a small world after all

Yesterday I was a the Rubin Museum in NYC with a friend, looking at a beautiful exhibition of Buddhist art. At some point a tour guide was discussing with a group of tourists the issue of the two Dalai Lamas.

For those who don’t know, China does not agree with the current Dalai Lama’s choice of Panchen Lama (the high priest who will help select the next Dalai Lama). So they have selected a different Panchen Lama, which means there are two: One who is recognized and seen as holy by Tibetan Buddhists, and one who is considered politically acceptable by the atheist Chinese government.

Perhaps the reasoning is that only an atheist government has the objectivity required to correctly identify the next earthly reincarnation of the Bodhisattva. Maybe we’ve been doing things all wrong in the West — we should have gotten Richard Dawkins to choose the next Pope.

Be that as it may, my very first thought upon hearing this conversation was that it reminded me of the intellectual property strategies of the Walt Disney Company. For most of its history, Disney has pursued a brilliant approach to I.P. hegemony: Do not even try to crush rival beloved stories out of existence. Rather, absorb them (with copyrightable changes), so that the original versions will quietly fall away.

This has been accomplished, with commendable success, in the cases of Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and countless other classic tales of childhood wonder. For example, when most children in the U.S. visualize Winnie the Pooh and his friends, they don’t see the E. H. Shepard illustrations that accompanied “The House at Pooh Corner” — the see the Disney versions, which have their own copyright. And try doing a Google image search on “Tarzan”.

But even Disney can’t hold an enchanted candle to the can-do spirit of the leaders of the People’s Republic. It’s one thing to gain control of a stuffed bear, an ape man or a glass slipper. It’s quite another to do the same with the immortal embodiment of the collective faith and spiritual hope of millions.

I think old Walt would have been impressed.

One Response to “It’s a small world after all”

  1. J. Peterson says:

    The other part of the Disney strategy, of course, is to keep up the lobbying efforts to extend the length of copyright terms. The law changes have kept their stories and characters from drifting into the public domain.

    (On that front, I’ve never understood why trademark alone wasn’t sufficient to prevent others from using Mikey Mouse (r)(c)TM & Co.)

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