Mickey Mouse May Be Leaving Disney Soon As 95-Year Copyright Expires

As a result of US copyright law, entertainment giant Disney could soon lose exclusive rights to some of the characters most responsible for the brand’s universal recognition, including the mouse that serves as its mascot.

Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in the year 2024, almost 95 years after its creation on October 1, 1928 – the period after which the copyright on a (pseudo)anonymous oeuvre expires.

Daniel Mayeda is the associate director of the Documentary Film Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law, as well as a long-standing media and entertainment attorney. He said the expiration of copyright does not come without limitations.

“You can use the Mickey Mouse character as it was originally created to create your own Mickey Mouse stories or stories with this character. But if you do it in a way that makes people think of Disney — which is probably because they already invest in this character for so long – then in theory Disney could say you’ve infringed my copyright.”

Mickey Mouse first appeared in the black and white cartoon Steamboat Willie. The cartoon pioneered animation for its use of synchronized sound – where movements on the screen match the music and sound effects, launching one of the most recognizable images in film and television.

According to the National Museum of American History, “Over the years, Mickey Mouse has undergone several transformations in his physical appearance and personality. In his early years, the mischievous and mischievous Mickey looked more like a rat, with a long pointed nose, black eyes , a small body with spindly legs and a long tail.

While this first rat-like version of Mickey will be stripped of its copyright, Mayeda said Disney will retain its copyright on all subsequent variations in other movies or artwork until they reach age 95.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse at Disney in Orlando, Florida.
Mickey and Minnie Mouse at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. Photo: AugustSnow/Alamy

Other characters have already entered the public domain: with unpredictable and somewhat shocking results.

The honey-loving bear Winnie-the-Pooh from the 100-acre forest and most of his animal friends entered the public domain in January of this year, and some have wasted no time taking advantage of the beloved characters.

Actor Ryan Reynolds made a playful nod to the now free-to-use Winnie the Pooh in a Mint Mobile commercial. In the ad, Reynolds reads a children’s book about “Winnie the Screwed,” a bear with an expensive phone bill.

Even more disturbing is that Pooh and his good friend Piglet are now the stars of Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, an upcoming horror film written and directed by Rhys Waterfield, in which the two go on a bloody rampage of murder. after being abandoned by their old friend, Christopher Robin.

Mayeda said it’s important for artists like Waterfield not to cross the line when it comes to creating new works based on the old characters. Certain aspects of a character that are recognized by the general public as part of the Disney brand are prohibited by artists seeking to take advantage of the copyright expiration date. If a particular work confuses the public into thinking it is actually affiliated with Disney, there could be major legal ramifications.

“Copyright is limited in time,” Mayeda said. “Trademarks are not. So Disney could essentially have a trademark forever as long as they continue to use different things as they are trademarked, be it words, phrases, characters or whatever.

Disney may still maintain trademarks on certain slogans or signature outfits worn by the characters, such as Pooh’s red shirt, which Waterfield deliberately avoided using in his film.

In an interview with Variety, Waterfield said: “We have tried to be extremely careful. We knew there was a line in between and we knew what their copyright was and what they did. So we did everything we could to make sure [the film] was based only on the 1926 version of it. No one will forget this [for Disney]† When you see the cover of this and the trailers and the photos and everything, no one will think this is a kid’s version.”

Disney still retains the exclusive rights to the bouncing tiger, Tigger, for another year since his first appearance was only in 1929 in The House at Pooh Corner, the series of stories written by Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne.

Politicize Pooh

The Walt Disney Company has a long history with US copyright law. Suzanne Wilson, once deputy general counsel for the Walt Disney Company for nearly a decade, now heads the US Copyright Office, underscoring the company’s relationship with the government.

In May 2022, Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri made headlines for threatening the corporate giant’s extensive copyright list after Disney publicly opposed Florida’s parental responsibility law, which commonly is referred to as the ‘don’t say gay’ law.

Hawley said, “The era of Republican corporate benefits is over. Thanks to special copyright protections from Congress, wakeful companies like Disney have made billions while giving in to wakeful activists more and more. It’s time to take away Disney’s special privileges and open a new era of creativity and innovation.”

Mayeda called Hawley’s response “purely political.”

“It has no chance of passing,” Mayeda said, referring to Hawley’s copyright recovery law that aims to “limit new copyright protections to 56 years and make the change retroactive to big companies like Disney that have been given unnecessarily long copyright monopolies.” “.

“Disney has been very active in extending the copyright terms,” ​​Mayeda said. “Luckily they extended their term for Mickey and so on, but I doubt they will be able to get additional extensions. I think this will be the end of the line.”

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