The House of Mouse: Will Mickey fall into the public domain in 2024?

Disney is a zealous defender of its intellectual property, so much so that in 1989, it sued three day-care centres for painting Mickey and Minnie Mouse on their walls.[1] It has been so effective that none of Disney’s intellectual property has entered the public domain since its start in the 1920s.[2]

Surprisingly, the majority of Disney’s successful projects are derivatives of preceding public domain works. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alice in Wonderland, Hercules, and The Jungle Book are just a few of the traditional fables and fairy tales that Disney has adapted. Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse’s debut short film, is based on previous work. As a result, the majority of Disney characters are based on works that have subsequently become public domain.[3]

Copyright provides legal protection given to creators, and it gives them exclusive rights to use and distribute their work for a certain period of time before it enters the public domain.[4] In the end, copyright law attempts to strike a balance between creators’ rights to profit from their work and society’s right to benefit from the work when it enters the public domain.[5]

Disney became heavily involved in the copyright term extension when they realized they would lose protection for Mickey Mouse.[6]

Over the years the Copyright Act has been amended for many reasons one of them being the extension of the protection period of copyrighted work.

US Copyright Act amendments

Mickey Mouse was created in 1928, the 1909 Copyright Act provided Disney with 56 years of legal protection. Mickey Mouse’s copyright was set to expire in 1984 but the protection period was extended thanks to the 1976 Copyright Act. The 1976 Act provided protection of Mickey Mouse until 2003. The CTEA, passed by Congress in 1998, gave authors an additional 20 years of copyright protection.[7]

Image found on google images

Conclusion

Will Mickey fall into the public domain? It's difficult to say, there is still time for another amendment of the Copyright Act. Even if Mickey Mouse enters the public domain the later variations of Mickey will still be protected and Disney can still exploit the work (of the original Mickey) through trademark law. Unlike copyright, trademarks exist in perpetuity so long as the owner uses the mark.

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[1] https://blog.ipleaders.in/popular-copyright-infringement-cases-highlighting-disney-protective-intellectual-propertyrights/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20Disney%20won%20the,harm%2C%20confusion%20and%20unfair%20competition.

[2] Anderson, C., 2018. History of US Copyright Law and Disney’s Involvement in Copyright Term Extension, The (Doctoral dissertation, University of Wyoming. Libraries) pg 16

[3] Anderson (n 2) pg 15

[4] https://copyrightalliance.org/faqs/what-is-copyright/

[5] above

[6] https://abj.artrepreneur.com/mickey-mouse-keeps-changing-copyright-law/

[7] above

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