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How Disney learned to stop worrying and love copyright infringement

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The Monday before the Oscars, Scott Kramer, a digital content producer based in Los Angeles, called his close friend Joshua Elson, a high school choir teacher, with an idea. For months, both their families had been obsessed with the song “Let It Go” from Disney’s animated phenomenon “Frozen.” Kramer, mindful of the growing online clamor focused on everything “Frozen,” wanted to make a video parodying “Let It Go.” It would be self-consciously “meta” — a plea from a father who was being driven crazy by the song’s ubiquity, begging the world to let “Let It Go” go.

Like the movie and the Oscar-winning song, the video “A Frozen Father (‘Let It Go’ Dad Parody)” became a huge hit, with almost 1.6 million views to date. Deliciously, it peaks at a moment of high drama that mimics the dramatic importance of the song in the film’s plot arc; you will not easily find a more well executed thrust of gleeful irony than the moment when Elson looks straight at the camera and sings, “Let it go, let it go, NO MORE YouTube videos!

The numbers that define “Frozen’s” cultural and financial success beggar description. It is not only the highest-grossing animated film of all time; it has also registered the most Blu-Ray DVD sales and paid digital downloads of any movie ever. The soundtrack to “Frozen” has sold 2.7 million copies. According to the Wall Street Journal. some 60,000 fan-made versions of “Let It Go” have been watched more than 60 million times. The authorized film clip featuring the song has been viewed over 147 million times. A shortage of affiliated merchandise — even Disney did not anticipate quite how big “Frozen” would get — has incited Cabbage Patch/BeanieBaby levels of hysteria.

Frozen is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon and there are many reasons for its success, including, but not limited to, its mildly feminist take on the classic princess tale and the obvious influence of Pixar genius John Lasseter on Disney’s creative process. But one of the most interesting things about “Frozen” can be glimpsed in the popularity of “A Frozen Father” on YouTube. Disney’s expertise in nurturing, co-opting and, most of all, not cracking down on the many ways fans have embraced “Frozen” online is a template for how to thrive in a digital, copy-promiscuous, consumer-empowered environment. Disney, long one of the

fiercest and most powerful defenders of strict intellectual property control, has learned how to let copyright go.

Well, at least a little bit.

* * *

Kota Wade is a 20-year-old aspiring singer in Los Angeles who epitomizes the new career track for the young creative professional on the make: Don’t wait for a gig to come to you — get yourself a YouTube channel, build up a fan base, and then keep giving those fans what they want.

Under the handle “steamfaerie” (yes, there turns out to be a cultural subgenre that merges steampunk fashion with fairy fandom) Kota has accumulated 65,000 subscribers for her music offerings and fashion and makeup tutorials — which often, but not always, riff off of Disney characters. Her four most popular videos? A cover of Demi Lovato’s version of “Let It Go”; a makeup tutorial for how to look like Princess Elsa, the snow queen protagonist for “Frozen”; a cover of Idina Menzel’s version of “Let It Go”; and a makeup tutorial for how to look like Princess Anna, Elsa’s younger sister.

Wade says she began uploading videos to YouTube shortly after the service first became popular. She created her SteamfaerieTV channel last July. But things really didn’t start moving until after “Frozen.”

“It was crazy. Like an overnight change. The movie had been out for a while and then I put up the Elsa makeup tutorial, and people were freaking out! They were like, do this, do that. So I kind of went with it.”

Revenue from ads shown on her videos now provides her primary source of income, said Wade. “It’s pretty much my full-time job.”

It’s all happened without anyone from Disney knocking on her door and objecting to her cover versions of copyrighted songs or appropriation of Disney characters. And Wade is hardly alone. There is an entire economy of independent YouTube channels synergistically thriving in concert with Disney’s official output. Wade’s already got her eyes focused on Disney’s upcoming reboot of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, “Maleficent.” She thinks it will fit her “niche.”

Wade says there are no clear rules on what you can or can’t do online with Disney content. She’s heard stories of videos being taken down, but she believes the company tends to be more “strict” when videos contain actual footage from its productions.

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