19.12.2023 | by Lili
2023 marked the 100th birthday of Disney, one of the best-known film production companies in the world. 2024 brings another, yet far less joyful milestone for the brand: the expiration of its copyright for the first ever version of its iconic character, Mickey Mouse.
Does that mean that every Tom, Dick and Harry will now be able to put Mickey on their merchandise and Disney won’t be able to do anything about it?
The answer to that is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Mickey Mouse was introduced to the general public back in 1928, manning the cartoon ship Steamboat Willie.
Screenshot of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBgghnQF6E4 displaying a still image from the cartoon Steamboat Willie
According to current US copyright law, a work is protected by copyright for 70 years after the death of its creator. However, very different rules apply to works created before 1978 (like Mickey Mouse). These creations initially enjoyed a 28-year-long protection which could be extended by 67 years to a total of 95 years. Since 1928 plus 95 equals 2023, it’s easy to see why Mickey Mouse’s 95th birthday also marks the end of his copyright protection and his entry into public domain.
Which could theoretically mean that the character, along with the entire cartoon Steamboat Willie could be used by anyone without requiring permission from and paying any compensation to Disney.
Luckily for Disney, the issue is not that simple. Since Mickey Mouse has undergone significant changes during his lifespan of 95 years, it’s only the earliest, Steamboat Willie version that’s losing its copyright protection.
Screenshot of wired.com displaying various versions of Mickey Mouse
And even that shouldn’t be a problem, since Disney has actually registered Mickey Mouse under both copyright and trademark laws.
Laws vary from country to country, but in general, it can be said that while copyrights and patents tend to be registered for a finite period of time, trademarks usually don’t have an expiration date.
Mind you, this only applies to trademarks in active use by brands and are often subject to various renewal procedures, depending on the country of registration.
This is very reassuring in the case of Mickey Mouse: the iconic figure is definitely actively used by Disney and we can safely assume that the company follows all the requirements necessary for trademark renewal.
In fact, this may even apply to the entire Steamboat Willie cartoon. US law allows for something to be recognised as a trademark even if it’s not directly registered, in case the brand views it as a symbol of the company.
Now, if Disney regards and uses Steamboat Willie and the characters on board as a symbol of the brand, then public usage can only be allowed if it doesn’t make people think of Disney. Which would be quite impossible, as the characters on that boat are very closely associated with the company.
Mickey Mouse is not the first beloved character to enter the public domain. Back in 2022, another cartoon animal, Winnie-the-Pooh became available for use when the copyright protection of A.A. Milne’s popular children’s novel expired.
However, as you may have guessed, this only concerns the actual novel and its artwork. None of its sequels written by Milne, nor any of the Disney interpretations are affected, since they were published at later dates. This means that while anyone may use Winnie, they can only depict the bear as he appeared in the first book.
Screenshot of plagiarismtoday.com displaying one of the original Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations
Content creators didn’t let this issue stop them from casting Winnie-the-Pooh in new works. For example, Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds narrates a story featuring everyone’s favourite bear in a commercial for a cell phone company.
Another, more 18+ interpretation of the classic is the horror movie Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, where characters from the novel turn into blood-crazed murderers terrorising people.
Screenshot of imdb.com displaying the poster of Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey
At the time of writing, 2024 has barely begun and already three new projects were announced that feature the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse.
Mickey’s Mouse Trap, a horror movie set in an amusement arcade revolves around a group of friends attacked by a killer wearing a Mickey Mouse mask. Interestingly, short clips from Steamboat Willie are also featured in the film that is supposed to be released in March 2024.
Another horror movie, currently untitled, is reported to feature Mickey Mouse. The beloved cartoon character is supposed to terrorise people enjoying a boat ride.
The third project is a video game titled Infestation: Origins. The premise of the game is currently unknown, however, based on the title and the name of its developer (Nightmare Forge Games), it’s safe to assume that this game isn’t aimed for young children either.
Still image from the trailer of Mickey’s Mouse Trap captured from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVjt52sOs6g
As you can see, rights holders still have options to protect their intellectual property, even if their copyrights have expired. But how to detect if somebody infringes on your rights? Well, that’s where online brand protection comes in.
globaleyez’s image monitoring service is designed to find potentially IP infringing images on the internet. This includes exact copies and replicas of your protected images.
Our state-of-the-art software infrimage detects and reports infringing images in ads, product listings, social media posts and anywhere else they may appear online. Thanks to its user-friendly and convenient features like data export, allow filters and much more, you quickly get a clear picture of who’s using your images without your consent.
If you need court-admissible proof of the infringements, our screenshotting tool screenseal provides you with time stamped screen captures that you can use as evidence in a potential court case.
Finally, we offer to enforce your rights and ensure the timely removal of the infringing images from the internet.
Getting back to our original question, will Mickey Mouse and/or Steamboat Willie be up for grabs for anyone who wants to make use of the famous mouse and his boat? If we put it like that, then the answer is probably no.
But that doesn’t mean people won’t even try it. Once that happens, we’ll see what kind of legal steps Disney will take to protect Mickey and Steamboat Willie from misuse.
If you want to learn more about what kind of steps you can take to protect your brand’s copyrights and trademarks, get in touch with us today and let’s discuss your options!