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A California elementary school PTA has learned a hard lesson about licensing intellectual property. But it looks as if Walt Disney Co. chairman Bob Iger is going to let it slide this time, as he has apologized and promised to donate to the cause.

But does that message from the head of a $250-billion company change the rules when it comes to future copyright enforcement on schools and other nonprofit organizations?

“He hasn’t created a legal precedent but rather a PR issue,” said Ryan G. Baker, a Los Angeles intellectual property attorney whose firm, Baker Marquart, specializes in commercial litigation.

While schools and churches are legally required — like anyone else — to pay in advance to use copyrighted properties in a public entertainment setting, he said, Disney is now likely to see a lot more requests to waive those fees in the future.

But the Dads Club at Emerson Elementary in Berkeley didn’t ask ahead of time when it showed the 2019 remake of “The Lion King” at a “family movie night” in mid-November, according to Berkeleyside, the local news outlet that first reported the story a week ago. The group raised a few hundred bucks from donations that were suggested but not required.

All was fine until the PTA and the school principal got an email late last month from an agency that works with studios to enforce intellectual-property licensing rights. It advised them that they had broken copyright law.

Apparently the dads didn’t know to check out the rules about using copyrighted work in a public situation.

On behalf of Disney, Movie Licensing USA told the PTA that it owed a $250 fee for screening the film. It was unclear how the agency was alerted to the use of the film.

“I think one of the dads owned the movie. He had bought it ... and we just basically threw it on while the kids were playing in the auditorium,” PTA president David Rose told Bay Area news channel Fox 40 on Monday.

“The event made $800, so if we have to fork over a third of it to Disney, so be it,” Rose added. “You know, lesson learned.”

According to its 2019-20 budget, the Emerson PTA expects to disburse about $165,000 this school year for part-time teachers, field trips, teacher grants, library books and more.

While its members were dealing with the fee request, a Berkeley city councilwoman who is also a parent at the school got into the scrum via social media.

Now I can imagine some of you may say there are legitimate concerns with copyright and PTA made a mistake. Sure, I get that but coming after an elementary school? Really?? Disney wants $250 when we are struggling to pay our teachers and spending per pupil is laughable?

— Lori Droste (@loridroste) January 31, 2020

“Now I can imagine some of you may say there are legitimate concerns with copyright and PTA made a mistake. Sure, I get that but coming after an elementary school? Really??,” Lori Droste tweeted Sunday. “Disney wants $250 when we are struggling to pay our teachers and spending per pupil is laughable?”

Droste, who has two kids at Emerson, also invoked Proposition 13, the 1978 third-rail state law that limits property-tax increases for residential and business properties alike.

So then advocates of a Proposition 13 overhaul that would remove those limits for businesses chimed in, painting Disney as a greedy company that “underpays in property taxes, STARVING schools of sorely-needed resources,” then “sues” a PTA.

What's wrong with this …

1) Disney underpays in property taxes, STARVING schools of sorely-needed resources

2) PTA work tirelessly to raise funds

3) Disney sues PTA for trying to raise funds

Hold corporations accountable. #SchoolsAndCommunitiesFirsthttps://t.co/5nTBH360w3

— Schools & Communities First (@Schools1stCA) February 4, 2020

Once the conversation turned to the sensitive subject of taxes, and as coverage expanded from Bay Area outlets to trade papers to national news and gained traction on social media, Iger and company may have decided to cut their losses.

“Our company @WaltDisneyCo apologizes to the Emerson Elementary School PTA and I will personally donate to their fundraising initiative,” the chairman tweeted Thursday.

Our company @WaltDisneyCo apologizes to the Emerson Elementary School PTA and I will personally donate to their fund raising initiative.

— Robert Iger (@RobertIger) February 6, 2020

Disney representatives didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment Friday, leaving it unclear as to what specifically Iger was sorry for. Notably, the tweet didn’t specifically absolve the group of its license-fee obligation. But the executive promised he’d personally donate to the school group.

Droste interpreted the apology in a Thursday phone interview with Berkeleyside, saying, “They’ve generated significant bad PR. I think it was too much for them to bear.”

However, a Movie Licensing USA representative told The Times on Friday that Disney had instructed the company early this week not to pursue the fee in this situation.

“While we, and the studios we represent, take unauthorized use of licensed and copyrighted works seriously, we understand that this situation, done in error, was not a malicious act,” said Barbara Nelson, senior vice president at Movie Licensing USA.

The situation has, according to attorney Baker, highlighted an area of copyright law where enforcement of that law is unsavory to the public. It’s a slippery slope as to where companies draw the line.

“OK, it’s a public school, but what if it’s private? What if it’s a public group that has other interests? There’s a whole spectrum of organizations that might want to try to take advantage of the informal policy” implied by Iger’s tweet, he said.

“This is going to invite a lot more waiver requests,” Baker predicted. “I’m certain he didn’t want to open the door to all those requests, but that could happen.”


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