Mickey Mouse may be Florida’s most famous resident, but he also has a lot of friends in Washington, DC. Over the past few decades, desperate pleas from Disney have inspired lawmakers to extend copyright protections for Mickey Mouse and other creative works from the 1920s. However, the clock is about to run out on seemingly limitless copyrights, and The Lomnitzer Law Firm, P.A. is advising creators on their options.
Oswald The Lucky Rabbit Is The Father Of Long Copyrights
When Walt Disney was just starting out, he agreed to create a cartoon character for Universal Studios. He and his chief animator Ub Iwerks came up with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which was a huge hit. The problem was, when his contract with Universal expired, Disney had to walk away from his creation because the studio owned all the rights to Oswald.
Determined never to cede his creations to anyone else ever again, Disney focused on building and protecting his own brand. On November 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse made his official debut, in an animated short called “Steamboat Willie.” Within a few years, he was the most well-known animated character in the world.
In order to protect Mickey and the profits he generated, Walt Disney the man and Disney the company copyrighted as much of their work as possible.
Copyright Swells To Cartoon Like Proportions
When Mickey Mouse debuted, federal copyright law granted creators two 28-year terms of exclusive use. Once those years passed, the copyright would expire and the work would enter the public domain and become usable and copyable by anyone. Since Mickey debuted in 1928, Disney’s copyright on the original character would enter the public domain in 1984.
As the date Mickey would enter the public domain approached, Congress revised the copyright laws and extended copyrights retroactively. Copyrights would now last 50 years after the death of their creator, or 75 years if they were owned by a company. This set Mickey up for a copyright lasting until 2003.
In 1998, following vigorous lobbying from Disney — and other owners of valuable copyrights — Congress again extended the life of copyrights. They currently last 70 years following the death of their creator or 95 years for corporate-owned creations. Barring additional Congressional action, Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain on January 1, 2024.
The Clock Is Ticking
As 2024 draws closer, it becomes less likely that Congress will pass another revision of our nation’s copyright law to protect Mickey and other early 20th century creations. First, it is not easy to draft and pass a major piece of legislation in a short amount of time. Second, there is a growing segment of the public that wants more work in the public domain.
Mickey Will Not Be Unprotected
When the copyright on Mickey Mouse expires, Mickey will not be unprotected. Disney owns copyrights on each version of the character that has been introduced over the years. Each of those copyrights has its own expiration date.
The company also has numerous Mickey Mouse trademarks, and trademarks don’t expire as long as their owner continues to renew them. So, while the character may enter the public domain, the Mickey Mouse brand will remain Disney property.
The strangest thing about Disney’s vice-like grip on our nation’s copyright laws is that many of Disney’s most well-known and beloved cartoons are remakes of stories that are in the public domain. Frozen, The Lion King and even early Mickey shorts are retellings of folk tales, fables, and literary classics.
Without the public domain, Disney would not be the company it is today. Who knows what creativity will be unlocked when Mickey and other creations from the 20th century get a similar treatment.
Helping South Florida Creators Navigate Copyright Law
If you want to copyright a new creation or have plans to put your own spin on something in the public domain, The Lomnitzer Law Firm, P.A. can help you make sure your work is protected. As South Florida’s premier intellectual property legal practice, we have the legal knowledge and entertainment industry experience you need to assess your situation and chart a path forward. Contact us today to schedule an initial consultation.