The Illustrated Story of Copyright
How Dan O'Neill "won" the Air Pirates case

(p. 198 of the book)

        Anyone wanting the definitive story of Dan O’Neill and the Air Pirates should read the detailed two-part account by attorney Bob Levin, “Showdown: The Pirate and the Mouse,” printed in The Comics Journal, issues 236 and 239, August and November, 2001. It's got lots of pictures of O'Neill's work, including images from Air Pirates. I’m told that it will eventually be expanded into a book; it’s incredibly informative and entertaining as is. The reference to me is reprinted at the end of this note.

        I had obtained the permission of Disney Enterprises to reprint the Disney images and the O'Neill parodies involved in the Air Pirates case, and didn't believe I had to obtain the permission of the defendants who were found to have infringed. Nevertheless, I thought it would be interesting to track down Dan O'Neill and get his side of the story. After some searching on the Internet, I finally reached him by phone in California.

        I told O'Neill that the case was a major one on the issue of fair use in copyright, and was included in many of the leading treatises and casesbooks.

       He replied that he felt particularly proud at beating Disney, and that the case was a major victory for freelance cartoonists. The conversation continued something like this:

ED: Uh, Dan, the case is in the casebooks because you got clobbered. How was it a victory for you?

DAN: There are two main ways. First, I didn't actually go to jail.

ED: That's not exactly a victory, Dan. Most people don't go to jail, and they don't exactly consider that a victory.

DAN: Well, I was the one who nearly went to Leavenworth. When they came after me, I contacted my cartoonist buddies and started a campaign called the Mouse Liberation Front. I'm only one artist, but I got 1,000 artists to each do one, thirty tons of art appeared in days. Disney was trying to get me for contempt of court. The judge was quite interesting, he told me he thought they had a case, and strongly urged me to settle. Finally Disney surrendered, about as I was to be hauled off to the federal penitentiary, and signed a peace treaty with the Mouse Liberation Front.

ED: Okay, so you didn't go to jail. You said two ways, how else was the case a victory for you?

DAN: Well, back in the '70s, I had a strip called Odd Bodkins. It was real successful, it was picked up by the syndicate. But then it got too controversial for them, and they wanted to withdraw it. I wanted to publish a book of the strip, and I discovered that they actually owned the copyright! I was just a young kid, and I didn't realize they owned the strip, not me. Then I figured out how to get them to give it back.

ED: Yes? How did you do that?

DAN: Well, I started putting Disney characters into the strip. At first it was just a few in the background, but it ended up being 28 Disney characters in the strip.

ED: [Pause.] Yes?

DAN: Then there was Air Pirates. And when Disney came after me, I told the syndicate that since they owned the strip, the suit should be against them. They would have to defend against Disney.

ED: [Pause.] Yes?

DAN: Well, they gave it back. So now I own Odd Bodkins, and I'm still writing it, and I've got a website and everything.

ED: [Long pause.] You mean to tell me that your using the Disney characters was all just a ploy to get back your own creation?

DAN: Of course.

ED: And you mean to tell me that you knew from the beginning, and that's why you did it?

DAN: Yes. But that's my story, that's my book. Don't write that book.

ED: [Long pause.] Don't worry, that's not what my book is about. There's just a mention of Air Pirates, but my book is about copyright.

DAN: Well, maybe your book will promote mine, and maybe mine will promote yours.

ED: I really hope you write that book, Dan, it would certainly be interesting.

        I have no way of knowing if O'Neill was as in control of the situation as he seemed to believe. However, I did start buying some of the Odd Bodkins books. Not only are they brilliant, but they do indeed have little images of Disney characters, sometimes just in hints (like in a cloud formation), sometimes more prominent. And the rights to Odd Bodkins are now owned by Dan O'Neill himself. Visit his website at Among other things, you'll find under "crimes" his "Communiqué," a hilarious four-page "explanation" of fair use in the context of the Air Pirates case. (What you see is a poor low-resolution image: track down a better copy, if you can, from an issue of the Co-evolution Quarterly.)

      Here's how the above account ended up in Bob Levin's article in The Comics Journal. (In this account, "I" refers to Bob Levin, the author of the article.)

                “But do you think the court’s decision was correct?” I said.

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