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September|October 2002
A Penny Saved By John Swansburg
Effective Command By Susan Benesch
The Disobedient Dozen By Josh Saunders
After the Rainbow By Megan Twohey
Go Dutch By Tom Geoghegan
The O.J. Effect By Wendy Davis

A Penny Saved

By John Swansburg

Once upon a time, Americans found the notion that an animated cartoon would be used to sell toys to kids upsetting. When Mattel debuted an animated series in 1969 starring its Hot Wheels toy cars, people threw up their hands in disbelief: The show was nothing more than a glorified commercial! The folks at the Topper Corporation, the maker of the Johnny Lightning line of model cars, were particularly galled, taking it upon themselves to bring this sinister use of animation to the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was shocked, and regulated the show right off the air.

But it was a short-lived victory: Johnny Lightning never caught on, and ever since 1980, when the General Mills toy group aired Welcome to the World of Strawberry Shortcake, a cartoon inspired by the eponymous line of (nonedible) dolls, Americans have grown accustomed to the concept that cartoons can be used to move product.

All was well, until one day not long ago when the Walt Disney Company asked itself a question: If we can use cartoons to sell kids toys, couldn't we use them to sell kids ideas? Cartoons had been used to deliver messages before. During World War II, Porky Pig sold war bonds and Popeye planted a victory garden (spinach, naturally). In the 1980s, each episode of GI Joe, a cartoon based on Hasbro's set of toy commandos, ended with a lesson—don't play near downed power lines, girls can do anything boys can do—and the tag line "Knowing is half the battle." But what Disney had in mind was less public than private service.

Disney was developing a new animated series called The Proud Family, which debuted on the Disney Channel last fall. The show is the creation of Bruce Smith, an animator who lists Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids as an early influence. Like Fat Albert, which aired in the 1970s, The Proud Family is a cartoon about African-American kids, and it's the first cartoon to star an African-American girl.

The show's subject matter often rises above the agony of cheerleading tryouts to tackle more challenging material. Lurking among the first season's episodes on Kwanzaa and Black History Month was one with a message dear to Disney's corporate heart. The episode—about something called EZ-Jackster—didn't feature an inducement to buy or a warning about talking to strangers; what it did have was a primer on copyright law in the digital age.

Perhaps more than any other American company, Disney has staunchly protected its copyrights—even if a change in the law has been required. In 1998, Disney championed the efforts of the late Sonny Bono, who had drafted legislation extending the existing copyright protections. Under the old rules, Mickey Mouse, first copyrighted in 1928, was scheduled to begin entering the public domain in 2004, with Donald Duck, Pluto, and others soon to follow. Once they were there, people would be able to create stories using these characters without Disney's permission, provided they didn't claim the result was a Disney product. (It's the same process that allowed Disney to create its own version of Snow White, who was once the intellectual property of the Brothers Grimm.) But thanks partly to Disney's intense lobbying, Congress was persuaded that the public domain is no place for characters as distinguished as Goofy and his friends. The legislation passed, and though it will face a review by the Supreme Court this fall, Mickey is currently protected until 2024; "I Got You Babe" is safe until 2060.

Disney is not the kind of company to rest on its laurels, however, and lately it has taken up a new cause. In February, Disney chairman and C.E.O. Michael Eisner appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee to talk about threats posed to intellectual property by digital piracy.

So far, the recording industry has won its battles against online file-sharing: Napster, the program that made downloading a national pastime, was successfully bled dry, and one of its heirs apparent, Audiogalaxy, was recently shuttered as well. But with the movie industry facing a similar threat—the web-savvy were downloading Spider-Man a day before it hit theaters this spring—Disney figured it was worth helping the recording industry nip this file-sharing thing in the bud. Eisner told the Senate that only stringent copyright protection "will allow the hundreds of thousands of artists—and would-be artists in high schools and grade schools—to continue to have something to aspire to."

Disney's research must have shown that most of those kids don't watch much C-SPAN. The sizeable viewership of The Proud Family, on the other hand, is made up primarily of "tweens," those not quite kids, not quite teens who make advertisers drool. Tweens tune in to The Proud Family to watch the adventures of one of their own: The show's protagonist, the headstrong Penny Proud, is a 14-year-old girl. One of those adventures was with EZ-Jackster.

The episode opens at Mr. Min's record store, where Penny and her best friend, Dijonay, have found their first jobs. Penny has also found a more interesting way to pass the time than stocking shelves; she's busy flirting with a boy named Mega, whose total coolness is symbolized by a pair of black sunglasses hovering on the bridge of his nose. Enter Mr. Min, the store's fretful proprietor, who gives Mega a tongue-lashing for being a repeat non-customer. Mega is unfazed. "Buying music is retro," he announces.

At the end of the workday, the rest of the Proud family, five strong, show up to see Penny and Dijonay receive their first paychecks. Dijonay opens her envelope to find a check for a tidy $128. Penny opens hers to find a check for $.05. It turns out Mr. Min offers his employees a 10 percent discount on CDs, and Penny has taken full advantage of it. Her shopping spree earns her an earful from her family—including her surly grandmother, Suga Mama—and she sulks off to her room.

But not for long. There's a rap on her second-story window and it's Mega, standing on a tree branch outside. He's got an answer to Penny's problem: It's called EZ-Jackster.

EZ-Jackster is a website, one that offers "free music." "Free music?" Penny asks. "Free music," says Mega. "Request any song and it's downloaded to your computer—for free." Penny can't believe it. "Is it legal?" she asks.

"Legal?" says Mega. "It's our birthright."

Penny is hooked, and spends a weekend downloading tracks by her favorite hip-hop artist, Sir-Paid-A-Lot, including "Where's My Money," "Get Yo Money," "Make Mo Money," and "When Do I Get Paid?"

Prompted by Mega to use the site and spread the word, Penny lets the loose-lipped Dijonay in on the secret. Soon people all over the world are downloading—a montage cuts from a young girl in a beret, to one in a sari, to a group of kids in African masks, all using EZ-Jackster. Even Suga Mama, a fan of Memphis soul, logs on. "Look Puff," she says to her poodle, "they've got Rufus Thomas!"

Meanwhile, Mr. Proud, home from work at the snack-food company he runs, is trying to relax and watch some pro wrestling. Instead, he finds a news bulletin: "Federal officials have been alerted to a new Internet website that threatens the entire music industry," reports Channel 8's Marcia Mitsubishi. The camera cuts to the exterior of Mr. Proud's very own home, and a host of police vehicles—a chopper included—encircling it. "We have you surrounded," comes a voice through a bullhorn. "Come out with your hands over your head, Penny Proud." She turns herself in without a fight.

It's going to take more than a little jail time, however, to convince Penny that what she's doing is wrong. Though her parents think they've confiscated her computer, Penny continues downloading, thanks to some technical support from Mega. But when Penny next reports for duty at Mr. Min's she finds the store empty, save for the figure of the owner himself, curled up on the floor and sobbing.

EZ-Jackster has put Mr. Min out of business (and cost Penny her job). And as Ms. Mitsubishi explains in a second news bulletin, that's just the beginning: "Last week's apprehension of Penny Proud hasn't deterred millions of young people from trading music via EZ-Jackster. In fact, more EZ-Jacks, as they are called, are joining the free-music movement. . . . Spiraling record sales are affecting all parts of society. Malls are empty. Hair salons have closed. There isn't a single citizen that EZ-Jackster hasn't affected."

The Channel 8 camera pans to Mr. Proud. "Daddy?" says Penny, listening to the broadcast over Mr. Min's sniveling. It seems EZ-Jackster threatens the snack-food business, too. "No records, no record release party," Mr. Proud explains. "No record release party, no record release party snacks."

Distraught over putting her father's business at risk (not to mention the global economy), Penny does some serious thinking during her walk home from Mr. Min's. When Mega shows up at her window that night, she's changed her mind about EZ-Jackster.

"You still downloading?" Mega asks. "No, it's stealing," she replies emphatically. "I know you're afraid of change," Mega says. "But I'm trying to show you a world without rules, borders, or control, where anything is possible." Penny isn't going to budge. "I'm not afraid, Mega. I just know right from wrong."

And so, Disney hopes, do the half-million tweens who tune in to The Proud Family each week, lest a generation grow up thinking that downloading is their birthright. It's a pretty well-crafted fable. Still, with Aesop you never got the sense he had a vested interest in promoting a look before a leap.


John Swansburg is an associate editor of Legal Affairs.

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