Cartoon Renews Napster Debate

The latest voices to chime in on the Napster debate belong to Disney cartoon characters. And — surprise — they're not exactly pro-file sharing.

In a recent Disney Channel episode of The Proud Family, 14-year-old heroine Penny Proud faces the dilemma of whether or not to swap music online at the behest of a boy she likes.

After succumbing to him, battling an obsession with file sharing and tangling with police, Penny decides it's wrong to get music for free on the Internet and kicks the addiction.

The episode — which first aired Oct. 5 — has lead Internet groups and software-freedom advocates to accuse Disney of trying to influence children through its shows. The Proud Family targets a 9- to 14-year-old audience.

"Disney is using propaganda to children to tell them circumventing copyright is a crime," said Bradley Kuhn, vice president of the Free Software Foundation, a group that advocates the freedom to copy and modify software. "Any time you try to manipulate children about these kinds of complex ethical issues, it's problematic."

Disney has fired back, saying the company had no hand in the plot of the show — which is produced by an outside company called Jambalaya Studio — and doesn't use children's programs to further an agenda.

"Any assertion that the Walt Disney Co. created that plot line or would use a Disney Channel original series to promote a corporate issue is just false," said Eric Hollreiser, a senior vice president at ABC Cable Networks Group, which manages the Disney Channel.

Walt Disney Co. has been aggressive in its fight to protect copyrights on its animated characters and films. The corporation lobbied heavily for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which overhauled previous copyright law and made it a crime to sidestep copy protections.

"Disney Co. for many decades has been enormously protective of their own copyrighted material — or what they consider their copyrighted material," said Steven Watts, a cultural historian at the University of Missouri-Columbia who authored a biography of Walt Disney. "They're sort of obsessed with copyright."

The corporation is currently backing a proposed bill outlawing software that can be modified and duplicated. And earlier this month, Walt Disney Holding Company joined other movie studios and music companies in filing a copyright infringement suit against three peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, which provide services similar to Napster.

Aside from its animated movies and theme parks Disney also owns the Buena Vista Music Group, which has several music labels — including Mammoth Records and Hollywood Records, the company's mainstream pop label.

Hollreiser denied that the message in The Proud Family cartoon was anti-Napster.

"It's really about making your own choices and not looking to others to speak for you," he said. "File swapping is something that kids are talking about and doing, something where there might not be a clear right and wrong."

Proud Family executive producer Ralph Farquhar echoed Disney, telling Wired News that the media giant gave him free reign with the episode in question. He said he only used Napster as a way to illustrate the pressures that come with romance.

"Really, it was our way of telling a love story, dealing with two 14-year-olds and the temptations that might come up with the relationship," he told Wired. "The subtext was that Penny wasn't ready to get with Mega, but maybe I'm the only one who got that."

Farquhar said he expected Disney to ask for changes to the plot or at least to direct him on the ending — but execs never paid him a visit. Besides, he said, he's neutral on the Napster debate.

"I have copyrighted materials, but I like to download stuff as well, so I can go either way on this," he said.

Kuhn thinks the media conglomerate has extended copyright law in unconstitutional ways, and said its original intent was to provide incentives for artists to create. He believes Disney has overstepped its boundaries with this episode.

"We should teach children that sharing is a good thing," he said.