Mickey Mouse could soon leave Disney as 95-year copyright expires | Walt Disney Company


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

Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in 2024, almost 95 years after its creation on October 1, 1928 – the period after which the copyright of an anonymous or pseudo-anonymous Gesamtkunstwerk expires.

Daniel Mayeda is Associate Director of the Documentary Film Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law and a veteran media and entertainment attorney. He said copyright expiration is not without limitations.

“You can use the Mickey Mouse character as originally created to create your own Mickey Mouse stories or stories featuring this character. But if you do that in a way that makes people think of Disney — which is quite likely because they’ve invested in this character for so long — then Disney could theoretically say you’ve infringed my copyright.”

Mickey Mouse first appeared in the black and white cartoon Steamboat Willie. Animation pioneered animation through its use of synchronized sound – where on-screen movement matches the music and sound effects, creating 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 changes 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 scrawny legs, and a long tail.”

While this first rat-like iteration of Mickey is stripped of its copyright, Mayeda says Disney retains its copyright on any subsequent variations in other films or artwork until they reach the 95-year mark.

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

Other characters have already become public: with unpredictable and somewhat shocking results.

Honey-loving bear Winnie the Pooh of the Hundred Acre Wood and most of his animal friends entered the public domain this January, and some have wasted no time capitalizing on the beloved characters.

Actor Ryan Reynolds made a playful nod to the now-free 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 disturbingly, Pooh and his close 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 killing spree after being killed by their old friend Christopher Robin were abandoned.

Mayeda said it’s important that artists like Waterfield don’t push boundaries when it comes to creating new work based on the old characters. Certain aspects of a character that the general public recognizes as part of the Disney brand are off-limits to artists wishing to take advantage of copyright expiration dates. If a particular work leads the public to believe that it is actually affiliated with Disney, there can be serious legal ramifications.

“Copyrights are temporary,” Mayeda said. “Brands are not. So Disney could essentially have a trademark as long as they use different things because they are trademarks, whether it’s words, phrases, characters or whatever.”

Disney may still retain trademarks for certain catchphrases or signature outfits worn by the characters, such as: B. Pooh’s red shirt, which Waterfield deliberately does not use in his film.

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

Disney retains exclusive rights to the hopping tiger Tigger for one more year, as his first appearance was not until 1929 in The House at Pooh Corner, the series of stories written by Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne.

Politicizing Pooh

The Walt Disney Company has a long history with US copyright law. Suzanne Wilson, once assistant legal 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 Education Parent Rights Bill, commonly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. law is referred to.

Hawley said, “The age of Republican handouts to big business is over. Thanks to special copyright protections in Congress, awakened companies like Disney have made billions while increasingly reaching out to awakened activists. It’s time to take away Disney’s special privileges and usher in a new era of creativity and innovation.”

Mayeda called Hawley’s reaction “purely political.”

“It doesn’t stand a chance,” Mayeda said of Hawley’s Copyright Clause Restoration Act, which aims to “limit the new copyright protections to 56 years and make the change retroactive for big companies like Disney that grant unnecessarily long copyright monopolies.” became”.

“Disney has been very active in trying to extend the copyright terms,” ​​Mayeda said. “They’ve successfully renewed their tenure on Mickey and such, but I doubt they’ll be able to get any more renewals. I think that will be the end of the road.”

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