Mickey’s copyright adventure: Disney’s first creations soon to be public property

There’s nothing sweet and cuddly in the way disney protects the characters it brings to life. This is a company that once forced a Florida daycare center to remove an unauthorized Minnie Mouse mural. In 2006, Disney told a stonemason that carving Winnie the Pooh into a child’s headstone would violate his copyright. The company pushed so hard for an extension of copyright protection in 1998 that the result was dubbed the mickey mouse Protection law.
For the first time, however, Mickey itself is about to enter the public domain. “Steamboat Willie,” the 1928 short that introduced Mickey to the world, will lose copyright protection in the United States and a few other countries late next year. The matter is more complicated than it seems, and those trying to capitalize on the expiring “Steamboat Willie” copyright could easily find themselves in a legal mousetrap. Only one copyright expires. It covers the original version of Mickey as seen in “Steamboat Willie”. This non-talking Mickey has a rat nose, rudimentary eyes (no pupils) and a long tail.
Later versions of the character remain copyrighted, including the softer, rounder Mickey with red shorts and white gloves most familiar to audiences today. They will enter the public domain at different times over the next several decades. The expiration of the “Steamboat Willie” copyright means that the black and white short film can be shown without Disney’s permission and even resold by third parties.
Disney has no copyright recourse, as long as the filmmaker adheres to the 1926 material and does not use any later material. This is where it gets tricky: Disney also owns trademarks on its characters, and the trademarks never expire as long as the companies continue to submit the proper documentation.
“Since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the short film ‘Steamboat Willie’ in 1928, people have associated the character with authentic Disney stories, experiences and products,” Disney said in a statement. “That won’t change when the copyright of the movie ‘Steamboat Willie’ expires.”
The topic of Mickey Mouse and copyright has come into the public consciousness since the late 1990s, when Disney and other entertainment companies successfully lobbied Congress to expand copyright protections. . In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 upholding what Congress had done.
Disney lawyers and lobbyists likely determined long ago that lobbying Congress for another extension would fail. This means early versions of Popeye, King Kong, Donald DuckFlash Gordon, Porky Pig and Superman will enter the public domain at various times over the next decade.

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