Who has two ears, two gloves, and lives in the happiest place on earth? Mickey Mouse is one of the most recognizable figures on the planet, and his likeness is owned by Disney. He is a valuable creative and commercial symbol indeed.
Since the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, we have been observing waves of previously copyrighted material entering the public domain. Now, in January 2024, we will see Mickey Mouse go through this change. What does it mean for Disney?
As you may have learned in the arena of intellectual property law, conclusions depend upon the details. It is true that a version of Mickey Mouse will lose copyright protection in 2024. And that version is Steamboat Willie.
The original iteration of Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie was the main character of an animated short released in 1928. The cartoon garnered attention in its time, because it was the first to sync sound and visuals, creating a rich, animated world.
When Steamboat Willie’s 95 year protection expires, other artists will be free to employ his image as they wish in their own written, visual, and filmic works.
So why does it seem that Disney is not concerned?
Copyright Protection vs. Trademark Protection
For starters, Steamboat Willie lacks some of the distinctive characteristics of modern Mickey Mouse. Since the film was in black and white, he does not boast Mickey’s bright red trousers. His hands are gloveless. And he sports a long, thin tail, which seems to have been phased out over time, perhaps to make Mickey resemble more of a cute little mouse than a gangly rat.
More importantly, however, Disney owns more than the copyright for various iterations of Mickey Mouse over time. Disney owns the Mickey Mouse trademarks as the prime representative of its entertainment empire.
When do trademarks expire? As long as they are actively in use – never.
Use the Mouse Carefully
These reasons are likely why Disney has not tried to pull any legal strings, as behemoth corporations are wont to when their bread and butter are threatened. Disney’s bread and butter are firmly anchored to distinct, registered trademarks.
However, creators need to keep this in mind when employing Steamboat Willie’s likeness, even if he is in the public domain. If they step on the toes of Disney’s legitimate trademarks, they could still find themselves in deep legal trouble. It would be wise to show your work to an IP expert before publishing it just to make sure the work does not infringe on any registered trademarks or copyrights.