The dispute between Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took an interesting turn. One day before the state dissolved the 25,000-acre theme park tax district, the old board held a public meeting. They passed an agreement to transfer all powers from the Reedy Creek Improvement District to Disney. The newly appointed board by the governor was powerless to do anything when they met for the first time.
The agreement had this legal language:
[T]his Declaration shall continue in effect until twenty-one (21) years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England living as of the date of this Declaration.Disney Agreements
Why was King Charles III referenced in an American legal document?
The legal language is called the “royal clause.”
The Royal Clause
The duration for property agreements is limited by the lifetime of a specific person and/or their descendants plus 21 years. For the United Kingdom and most Commonwealth countries, the monarch of England is the specified person.
Hence, the royal clause.
In the United States, similar clauses are tied to prominent families like the Kennedys and the Rockefellers. Sometimes called the “presidential clause” when a president is the specified person. Usage of the royal clause is still valid in the U.S.
I’ve read articles that said that Disney had tied up the tax district for the next 30 years. I don’t know where that particular number comes from. Maybe King Charles will kick the bucket in nine years from now.
While King Charles is specified in the clause, his lifetime doesn’t limit the duration of the agreement. It’s the lifetime of his descendants.
Who are the descendants of King Charles at the time of the agreement in February 2023? Prince William, Prince Harry, and their five children.
The youngest, Princess Lilibet, is one year old. If Princess Lilibet is like her great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, or great-great-grandmother, Queen Mum, she could live to be 100 years old.
Disney could have the tax district tied up for the next 121 years.
That wasn’t the first time Disney used the law to tie up property for a century.
Disney’s first animated feature was the black-and-white short, “Steamboat Willie,” in 1928. Under the 1909 revision of U.S. copyright law, copyright protection was 56 years after publication. The short should have gone into the public domain in 1984.
But that didn’t happen.
Disney lobbied Congress to extend the copyright law in 1976. Copyright protection for corporate owners became 75 years after publication. The short should have gone into the public domain in 2003.
But that didn’t happen either.
Disney lobbied Congress to extend the copyright law again in 1998. Congress passed what many people called “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” Copyright protection for corporate owners is now 95 years after original publication or 120 years from creation.
The short should finally enter the public domain in 2024.
Disney, however, own trademarks that never expire. The name “Mickey Mouse” and the character’s colorful costume are trademarked. Creators will have to walk a fine line between what is in the public domain and Disney’s trademarks. For most creators, re-using “Steamboat Willie” won’t be worth the trouble.
What happens next between Disney and Florida?
The new board will have their attorneys look at unraveling the agreement in a lawsuit against the old board. From what I’ve read about the royal clause, they’re so out of luck.
Governor DeSantis ordered a criminal investigation into the old board for self-dealing and collusion. He’s also threatening to raise hotel taxes and put tolls on roads leading into the theme park. I suspect the governor will also be out of luck in picking a fight with the state’s largest employer.