Mickey Mouse will soon be in the public domain

MICKEY will soon belong to you and me.

With a few asterisks, clarifications, and caveats, Mickey Mouse in his earliest form will be the leader of the gang of characters, movies, and books that will come into the public domain as 2024 approaches.

what you should Know

  • The earliest version of Disney’s most famous character and perhaps the most iconic character in American pop culture will enter the public domain on January 1, 2024.
  • The copyright on the first screen appearance of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie has expired
  • Many experts thought the day would never come. Congress has in the past extended the copyright period to ensure that this did not happen
  • Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger also goes public. He first appeared in The House at Pooh Corner, which turns 96

In a moment that many close observers thought might never come, at least one version of the quintessential piece of intellectual property and perhaps the most iconic character in American pop culture will be released from Disney’s copyright as its first screen adaptation. , the 1928 short “Steamboat Willie,” featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, becomes available for public viewing.

“This is it. This is Mickey Mouse. It’s exciting because it’s kind of symbolic,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, who writes an annual column on Jan. 1 about “The Day of the public domain.”I feel like a steamer pipe, like I’m blowing smoke. It’s so exciting.”

US law allows copyright to last for 95 years after Congress extended it several times during Mickey’s lifetime.

“It’s sometimes derisively called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” Jenkins said. “That’s an oversimplification, because it wasn’t just Disney that was pushing for an extension. It was a whole group of copyright holders whose works would soon be in the public domain who benefited greatly from the 20 years of additional protection.”

“Ever since Mickey Mouse first appeared in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with Disney stories, experiences and authentic products,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement to The Associated Press. “That won’t change when the Steamboat Willie movie copyright expires.”

Current artists and creators will be able to use Mickey, but with severe restrictions. Only the more mischievous, rat-like, non-speaking boat captain in “Steamboat Willie” became public.

“More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of Steamboat Willie’s copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions and merchandise,” Disney’s statement said.

Not every characteristic or personality trait a character exhibits is necessarily copyrightable, however, and the courts may be busy in the coming years determining what is in and out of Disney property.

“We will, of course, continue to protect our rights to more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright,” the company said.

Disney still solidly and separately holds a Mickey trademark as a corporate mascot and brand identifier, and the law prohibits the character from being used fraudulently to mislead consumers into thinking a product is from the original creator. Anyone starting a movie company or theme park won’t be free to make mouse ears their logo.

Disney’s statement said it “will work to protect against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized use of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”

Steamboat Willie, directed by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks and among the first animated films to have sound synchronized with their visuals, was actually the third animated film featuring Mickey and Minnie that the men made, but the first to was released. the more menacing Mickey captains a boat and makes musical instruments out of other animals.

In it, and in a clip of it used in the intro to Disney cartoons in recent years, Mickey whistles the 1910 tune “Steamboat Bill.” The song inspired the title of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr, released just a few months before Steamboat Willie, which in turn may have inspired the title of the Disney short. The copyright on Keaton’s film has not been renewed and it has been in the public domain since 1956.

Another famous animal helper, Tigger, will join his friend Winnie the Pooh in the public domain as the book in which the bouncy tiger first appeared, Pooh’s Corner House, turns 96. Pooh, possibly the most famous previous character to become public domain, gained that status two years ago when AA Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh entered the public domain, leading to some truly novel uses, including this year’s horror film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

Young Mickey can get the same treatment.

“Now the audience will set the terms,” ​​said Cory Doctorow, an author and activist who advocates for broader public ownership of works.

Jan. 1, 2024, has long been ringed off on the calendars of public domain watchers, but some say it serves to show how long it takes for works in the U.S. to go public, and many properties with less pedigree than Winnie or Minnie can to disappear or be forgotten with their murky copyrights.

“The fact that there are works that are still recognizable and enduring after 95 years is frankly remarkable,” Doctorow said. “And it makes you think of the things we must have lost that would still have currency.”

Other properties entering the US public domain include Charlie Chaplin’s film Circus, Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, and Bertolt Brecht’s musical The Threepenny Opera.

The current copyright term, enacted in 1998, has brought the US into closer sync with the European Union, making it unlikely that Congress will extend it now. There are already powerful companies, including Amazon with its fan-fiction-heavy publishing division and Google with its book project, that are in some cases advocating for the public domain.

“There’s actually more pushback now than there was 20 years ago when the Mickey Mouse Act was passed,” said Paul Heald, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law who specializes in copyright and international intellectual property law.

In some cases, the US goes beyond Europe and retains copyright on a work already in the public domain in its country of origin, even though international agreements would allow the US to adopt other nations’ shorter term for a work created there.

George Orwell’s books, for example, including Animal Farm and 1984, both published in the 1940s, are now in the public domain in his native Britain.

“These works will not enter the public domain in the United States for 25 years,” Heald said. “It would literally be free for Congress to pass a law that says, ‘We’re now adopting the shorter term rule,’ which would throw a ton of works into the public domain here.”

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