Disney could soon lose exclusive rights to longtime mascot Mickey Mouse and many more of his beloved characters.
Since his inception in 1928, Mickey has become the cheerful face of the multi-billion dollar Disney brand.
But in 2024, 95 years after its debut, the simple mouse will enter the public domain.
Under US copyright law, an ‘anonymous or pseudonymous body of artistic work’ is only protected for 95 years, after which it can be used freely.
So what does this mean for Disney, and which familiar characters will you have to share next?
How does copyright law work?
Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and Dracula: Mickey will join a long list of characters that have passed into the public domain.
But aspiring creatives beware: there could be serious legal caveats to using the caricature.
Mickey made his debut in a black and white film ‘Steamboat Willie’ in 1928.
Over the next nine decades, his appearance changed: the first Mickey had black eyes, small ears, and a pointed nose. He didn’t adopt his now iconic red shorts until 1935.
Only the first version of Mickey is entering the public domain.
Later iterations of Mickey – variously skinny and fat, and with and without eyebrows – are still under Disney copyright. They will pass into the public domain at different times in the coming decades.
People can now create their own stories with the original Mickey Mouse character. However, there are still legal obstacles such as trademark law.
Disney owns the Mickey Mouse trademarks for a variety of commercial uses. And while copyrights are time-limited, trademarks are not.
“In the case of Mickey Mouse, for example, not only the name but also various drawings are trademarks,” writes Martin Senftleben in his 2020 book ‘The Copyright/Trademark Interface’.
“The combination of copyright and trademark claims has become a standard protection strategy in the field of contemporary cultural symbols,” adds Senftleben, “however, co-existing trademark protection will be felt once trademarks expire. Copyright”.
So if it can be argued that a viewer would associate a new creation with the Disney brand, the company could theoretically sue.
Given the strength of the partnership between Mickey Mouse and Disney, and given Disney’s reputation for being ruthless in protecting its intellectual property, many creators will rightly be hesitant to use Mickey’s likeness anytime soon.
What other Disney characters could expire?
In the coming decades, many Disney characters will enter the public domain.
Pluto, Mickey’s canine best friend, first appeared in 1930, which means the copyright could expire in three years.
Donald Duck’s film debut was “The Wise Little Hen” on June 9, 1934, giving the company another six years of sole ownership.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs could be in the public domain within 15 years.
However, like his friend Mickey, these characters have also become trademarks in certain commercial uses.
In cases where trademark rights do not apply, copyright expiration means these characters can be used in new and sometimes disturbing ways.
Winnie the Pooh, for example, is set for a psychotic makeover in the upcoming horror movie ‘Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.’
The character entered the public domain when AA Milne’s book copyright expired earlier this year.
The film sees the friendly bear transformed into a brutal killer. After being dumped by Christopher Robin, Pooh will go on a murder spree with his best friend Piglet.
It appears that the film’s director has managed to escape any trademark infringement by adapting the 1926 version of the character in a way that is distinctly distinct from the Disney brand. There is certainly little chance of mistaking the following images for one of Disney’s children’s movies.