As a consequence of US copyright law, entertainment giant Disney could soon lose the exclusive rights to some of the characters most responsible for the brand’s universal recognition, including the mouse that acts as its mascot.
Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in the year 2024, almost 95 years after his creation on 1 October 1928 – the length of time after which the copyright on an anonymous or pseudo-anonymous body of artistic work expires.
Daniel Mayeda is the associate director of the Documentary Film Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law, as well as a longtime media and entertainment lawyer. He said the copyright expiration 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 so in a way that people will think of Disney – which is kind of likely because they have been investing in this character for so long – then in theory, Disney could say you violated my copyright.”
Mickey Mouse first appeared in the black and white cartoon Steamboat Willie. The cartoon was a pioneer in animation for its use of synchronized sound – where movements on screen correspond to 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 gone through several transformations to his physical appearance and personality. In his early years, the impish and mischievous Mickey looked more rat-like, with a long pointy nose, black eyes, a smallish body with spindly legs and a long tail.”
While this first rat-like iteration of Mickey will be stripped of its copyright, Mayeda said Disney retains its copyright on any subsequent variations in other films or artwork until they reach the 95-year mark.
Other characters have already moved into the public domain: with unpredictable and somewhat shocking results.
Honey-loving bear Winnie the Pooh from the Hundred-acre Woods and most of his animal friends entered public domain in January this year and some have wasted no time in capitalizing on 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 advertisement, Reynolds reads a children’s book about ‘Winnie the Screwed,’ a bear with a costly phone bill.
More disturbingly, Pooh and his close pal Piglet are now the stars of Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a soon-to-be released horror film, written and directed by Rhys Waterfield, that sees the two go on a bloody rampage of killing 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 the general public recognizes as part of the Disney brand are off-limits for artists who wish to make use of the copyright expirations. If a particular work confuses the public into thinking it is actually affiliated with Disney, there could be major legal consequences.
“Copyrights are time-limited,” Mayeda said. “Trademarks are not. So Disney could have a trademark essentially in perpetuity, as long as they keep using various things as they’re trademarked, whether they’re words, phrases, characters or whatever.”
Disney may still maintain trademarks on certain catchphrases or signature outfits worn by the characters, such as Pooh’s red shirt, which Waterfield intentionally avoided using in his movie.
In an interview with Variety, Waterfield said: “We’ve tried to be extremely careful. We knew there was this line between that and we knew what their copyright was and what they’ve done. So we did as much as we could to make sure [the film] was only based on the 1926 version of it. No one is going to mistake this [for Disney]. When you see the cover for this and you see the trailers and the stills and all that, there’s no way anyone is going to think this is a child’s version of it.”
Disney still retains exclusive rights to the bouncing tiger, Tigger, for one more year since his first appearance wasn’t until 1929 in The House at Pooh Corner, the series of stories written by Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne.
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 expansive list of copyrights after Disney publicly opposed Florida’s parental rights in education bill, commonly referred to as the “don’t say gay” bill.
Hawley said: “The age of Republican handouts to big business is over. Thanks to special copyright protections from Congress, woke corporations like Disney have earned billions while increasingly pandering to woke activists. It’s time to take away Disney’s special privileges and open up a new era of creativity and innovation.”
Mayeda called Hawley’s reaction “purely political”.
“It has no chance of passing,” Mayeda said in reference to Hawley’s copyright clause restoration bill that seeks “to limit new copyright protections to 56 years and make the change retroactive for massive corporations like Disney that have been granted unnecessarily long copyright monopolies”.
“Disney has been very active in trying to extend copyright terms,” Mayeda said. “Successfully, they have had their term for Mickey and so forth extended, but I doubt that they’re going to be able to get additional extensions. I think this is going to be the end of the line.”