The Public Domain and the House of Mouse
On January 1, 2024, Mickey Mouse, one of the most iconic cartoon characters in history, beloved by generations of children and adults alike, is set to become public domain. Created by Walt Disney in 1928, Mickey has been the star of countless movies, TV shows, comic books, and merchandise for decades. With less than a year to go, what does this change mean for the House of Mouse and how will it affect the Disney-verse?
In a nutshell, public domain refers to all creative works—from books to music to merchandise—not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. Said rights may have expired, forfeited, or waived. Creative works become public domain if it was published before 1923, if it was unpublished and the author died over 70 years ago, or if it was written by an anonymous author over 120 years ago. Once work enters public domain, the public now owns these works and can use it in any way they see fit—without having to pay royalties or obtaining permission from the original creator.
Last year, Winnie the Pooh entered the public domain. That is, with the exception of Tigger who remains exclusive to Disney until next year since he was introduced later in the series. Since Winnie the Pooh and friends were written and created by A.A. Milne, Disney lost exclusive rights to the character. However, under the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (derisively called in some circles as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act), Disney keeps their own creations from the Hundred Acre Woods. Meaning the adorable honey loving, red shirt Pooh-bear version and his friends are still under Disney copyright, including Gopher who was not in the book and was created for Walt Disney’s cartoons. Other studios and productions can use their own adaptations but will not be able to use the version created by Disney. Though it entered the public domain, Winnie the Pooh remains a huge part of the Disney brand.
For years, Disney has always been one of the biggest proponents of copyright law. It has fought to extend the length of copyright protection for its characters and other creative works. In 1928, Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in the silent short Steamboat Willie. At that time, the copyright law protected the film and the character along with it until 1984. Disney lobbied for a copyright extension and in 1976, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, extending copyrights to 50 years after the creator’s death or 75 years after the creator’s death if the work was created for his/her employer. Ultimately, under this law, it protected Mickey’s copyright until 2004. In 1998, Disney again lobbied to further extend the copyright expiration date. Their efforts were not in vain since Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. Under the extension, works owned by individuals were protected 75 years after its publication and works created by an individual for a corporation were protected for 95 years after its publication or 120 years from its creation, whichever comes first. This extended Mickey’s protection for another 20 years, which brings us to 2024.
What does this mean for the House of Mouse? In the past 90 years, Mickey Mouse has undergone a lot of changes. The only version or image of Mickey Mouse that is slated to enter the public domain next year is his original version, that of Steamboat Willie. Walt Disney Company still owns the copyright and trademarks for the Mickey Mouse name and a multitude of symbols associated with their founding character. The trademark protections will still be in place if Disney continues to use Mickey Mouse as a company logo. In theory, once Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie version enters the public domain, it cannot be used in any way that would imply an association with Disney. If it is used in that way, Disney can claim a trademark violation.
It will be interesting to see how this iconic version of Mickey Mouse is treated once it enters the public domain. Will he end up in a slasher movie like Winnie the Pooh? Will Disney, once again, lobby for yet another extension or will they let the Mouse that catapulted them into the company they are today go without a fight? We’ll find out in less than 10 months.