Disney Loses Copyright of Early Version of Mickey Mouse

In a significant development from 1st January 2024, an early version of the iconic Mickey Mouse, featured in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, has lost its copyright protection. This change allows members of the public to freely use the image of Mickey and Minnie Mouse from their first screen appearance, signalling the end of the copyright term for this particular version.

The expiration of copyright for this early rendition of Mickey Mouse is in accordance with US law, which allows copyright to be held for 95 years. Congress has expanded this duration multiple times over the years. The copyright term passed in 1998 brought the US closer to the European Union's standards.

Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law and director of Duke's Centre for the Study of the Public Domain, notes that this change is sometimes humorously referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. The extension of copyright terms was not solely driven by Disney; it benefited a broader group of copyright holders whose works were nearing public domain status.

The lapse of copyright for Steamboat Willie's Mickey Mouse is described as exciting and symbolic by Jenkins. This version of Mickey Mouse, with its mischievous, rat-like appearance, has now entered the public domain. However, more modern versions of Mickey Mouse will remain unaffected by this expiration.

A spokesperson for Disney reassures that more contemporary iterations of Mickey Mouse will continue to be protected under copyright. Disney emphasises that Mickey will persist as a global ambassador for the company in various mediums, including storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.

Despite the expiration of copyright for this specific version, Disney still maintains a separate trademark on Mickey as a corporate mascot and brand identifier. Legal frameworks prohibit deceptive use of the character to mislead consumers into thinking a product is affiliated with the original creator.

Steamboat Willie is not the only creation entering the public domain in 2024. Other properties like Charlie Chaplin's film Circus, Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando, and Bertolt Brecht's musical play The Threepenny Opera have also reached the end of their copyright protection.

This shift raises intriguing questions about what features or traits of a character are copyrightable and may prompt legal discussions in the years to come. The expiration of copyright for Winnie the Pooh two years ago and now for Mickey Mouse signifies a broader trend with beloved childhood characters entering the public domain, paving the way for creative reinterpretations and adaptations.

As iconic characters take on new forms in the public domain, it marks a dynamic phase in intellectual property law, challenging companies to adapt and explore new avenues for protecting their brands and creations. The change in copyright status prompts reflection on the enduring legacy of cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and the evolving nature of intellectual property rights.
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