Intellectual Property Law

The Fight to Continue Mickey Mouse’s Copyright

With the upcoming expiration of Mickey Mouse's protections, many in the copyright world are wondering whether or not Disney will push forward in an attempt to hold onto Mickey Mouse's copyright a little longer.

One of the most popular cartoon characters in modern history is that of Mickey Mouse. The character has grown to be such an icon that a silhouette of the black and white figure is immediately recognizable by individuals from all walks of life. The character Mickey Mouse made its debut in the company’s early film, Steamboat Willie. The now iconic character has become one with the Disney brand as Mickey Mouse is often the front runner in many of Disney’s projects such as Disneyland and Disney merchandise. While Disney has enjoyed copyright protections over Micky Mouse for nearly 100 years, that could soon change as copyright laws protecting Mickey Mouse are set to expire in 2024. 

Mickey Mouse will be one of several iconic works that are set to enter the public domain within the next couple of years. Copyrights to Batman, Disney’s Snow White, and some of the earlier looney tunes characters are also set to expire between 2031 and 2035. With the upcoming expiration of Mickey Mouse’s protections, many in the copyright world are wondering whether or not Disney will push forward in an attempt to hold onto Mickey Mouse’s copyright a little longer.   

What Is Copyright? 

According to U.S. copyright law, copyright is a legal term used to describe the rights an author has over his or her creative works. Copyright goes into effect when an author puts their creative ideas in a fixed and tangible form. Works that are fixed and tangible refer to works including but not limited to books, articles, movies and films, audio formats and music, poems, play, and even architectural works. 

Copyright laws offer protections for authors of creative works so that other individuals cannot benefit from the author’s work. There are some rules that allow an individual to use someone’s work, but these rules only exist in certain conditions. Typically, authors do not need to stamp their tangible, fixed work with the copyright symbol, but many companies do use the symbol to remind users of the copyright protections. 

Disney’s Influence Over Past Copyright Laws 

Disney’s Mickey Mouse was created in 1928 and the character fell under the Copyright Act of 1909. Under this act, Mickey Mouse would have been under copyright for 56 years meaning its protections would end in 1984. Throughout its early years, the character became an iconic cornerstone of Disney and the Mickey Mouse brand grew exponentially, bringing in billions for the company. Losing control over the character would have been a hard hit to Disney. In response to Mickey Mouse’s earlier expiration protections, the company lobbied legislatures to have Mickey Mouse’s copyrights extended. In 1976 when the Copyright Act was reformed, protections for Mickey Mouse were extended from 56 years to 76 years, buying Disney years of additional protection with its copyright running out in 2003, not 1984 as originally stipulated. 

As the 2003 protections set to expire, Disney again lobbied Washington D.C. and copyright protections were extended another 20 years, protecting Mickey Mouse until 2023. Currently, Mickey Mouse is protected under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. This extension which was passed in 1998 adds that additional kinds of work that were created on or after January 1, 1978, would enjoy copyright protection for “the life of the author plus 70 years.” The extension also protects corporate works for 95 years from the year they were first published, or 120 years from the year they were created depending on whichever comes first. 

As the copyright’s expiration looms in the coming years, questions about whether or not Disney will push for the extension of the Copyright Act remain. Along with that, many critics have pointed out the potential harm in a private company having such great influence over legislation in the way Disney has had over Copyright laws. 

Implications of Mickey Mouse Entering the Public Domain

Mickey Mouse has grown to be a global revenue powerhouse for the Disney company. It is estimated that Mickey Mouse brings in roughly six billion dollars a year. As the copyright for one of the world’s most recognizable characters is set to expire in the coming years, many wonder what the impact would be for Disney and other companies. As it enters the public domain, individuals and companies may see an opportunity to capitalize on what has since been off limits. 

The impact on Disney however is still left for debate. While Disney is set to lose the copyright protections. Its ownership of the character, name and other trademarked components of Mickey Mouse will remain intact forever as trademark ownerships do not expire the way copyright protections expire. These trademark protections could allow Disney to retain the dominance of the character. Disney will also be able to retain protections over any new incarnations of the character giving another advantage in retaining perceived ownership

Disney has made no secret of wanting to retain full ownership of their brand and Mickey Mouse. Disney has done this through several lawsuits they have filed against those who try and use their Mickey Mouse character. In 2019, Disney sued an online clothing company for a design they created that bore similarities to Mickey Mouse’s design.

Critics Push Back 

One of the main push backs that Disney is facing is what some have called the hypocrisy of Disney seeking to keep the rights to Mickey Mouse. The brand itself dominates the modern landscape because of its access to works in the public domain. The reinvention of works such as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Mulan, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid have helped the company generate an estimated 25 billion dollars. 

Conclusion

While it remains unclear whether or not Disney will try to lobby Washington D.C. in order to get copyright protection extended, it remains clear that Mickey Mouse is certainly an iconic figure that would have an influence of sorts if he were released to the public domain.

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