(Los Angeles) M-I-C-K-E-Y will soon belong to you and me. With several asterisks, caveats and caveats, Mickey Mouse in his earliest form will lead the group of characters, films and books that will enter the public domain in 2024.
In a moment that many close observers thought would never happen, at least one version of the quintessential intellectual property and perhaps the most iconic character in American pop culture will be released from Disney copyright when its first film, the 1928 short Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, will be available for public use.
” That’s it. It’s Mickey Mouse. It’s exciting because it’s a little bit symbolic,” said Jennifer Jenkins, who is a law professor and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Realm, and who writes an annual column for Public Realm Day , January 1st.
“I feel a bit like the pipe on the steamboat, like I’m blowing smoke out. It’s very exciting,” she said.
U.S. law allows copyright to be held for 95 years, with Congress extending this term several times during Mickey’s life.
“It’s sometimes derisively called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” Jenkins said. This is an oversimplification, as it wasn’t just Disney that pushed for the duration extension. This was a whole group of copyright holders whose works were soon to enter the public domain, and who benefited greatly from these 20 years of additional protection. »
“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,” a Disney spokesperson told the Associated Press. This won’t change when the Steamboat Willie movie copyright expires. »
Current artists and creators will be able to use Mickey, but with significant limitations. Only Steamboat Willie’s more mischievous, rat-like, non-speaking boat captain goes public.
“More modern versions of Mickey will not be affected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our stories, our attractions in the theme parks and our related products,” said the Disney press release.
However, not every characteristic or personality trait of a character is necessarily protected by copyright, and the courts may be busy in the years to come determining what is Disney property and what. which does not fall under it.
“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 warned.
Disney still securely and separately holds a trademark on Mickey as the company’s mascot and brand identifier, and the law prohibits using the character in a deceptive manner to make consumers believe that a product comes from the creator of ‘origin. Anyone starting a film company or theme park won’t be free to make mouse ears their logo.
Disney’s statement said the company “will strive to avoid consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”
Steamboat Willie, directed by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks and one of the first cartoons whose sound is synchronized with the images, is in fact the third cartoon featuring Mickey and Minnie produced by the two men, but the first to be broadcast. It features a more menacing Mickey, captain of a boat and making musical instruments from other animals.
In this cartoon, and in an excerpt used in the introduction to Disney animated films of recent years, Mickey whistles the 1910 tune Steamboat Bill. This song inspired the title of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr., released a few months before Steamboat Willie, which in turn may have inspired the title of the Disney short film. The copyright was not renewed for Keaton’s film and it has been in the public domain since 1956.
Another famous animal, Tigger, will join his friend Winnie the Pooh in the public domain when the book in which the leaping tiger first appeared, The House at Pooh Corner, turns 96. Winnie, who is probably the most famous earlier character to enter the public domain, gained this status two years ago, when the original book by A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh has entered the public domain, leading to some truly novel uses, including this year’s horror film Winnie The Pooh: Blood and Honey.
Young Mickey could benefit from the same treatment.
“Now the public is going to set the terms,” said Cory Doctorow, an author and activist who advocates for greater public ownership of works.
The date January 1, 2024, has long been on the calendars of public domain observers, but some say it shows how long it takes for American works to become public, and that many properties with less pedigree that Winnie or Minnie may disappear or be forgotten due to their obscure copyrights.
“The fact that some works are still recognizable and enduring after 95 years is frankly remarkable,” said Doctorow. And it makes us think of everything we had to lose and which would still be relevant today. »
Charlie Chaplin’s film Circus, Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, and Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night are also in the American public domain.
The current copyright term, adopted in 1998, has brought the United States closer to the European Union, and Congress is unlikely to extend it today. Furthermore, powerful companies, such as Amazon, which publishes a lot of fanafiction, and Google, with its book project, sometimes argue in favor of the public domain.
“There’s actually more resistance today than there was about 20 years ago when the Mickey Mouse law was passed,” said Paul Heald, a professor at the University of California Law School. ‘Illinois, specializing in copyright and international intellectual property law.
In some cases, the United States goes well beyond Europe and maintains copyright over works that are already public in its home country, even though international agreements would allow the United States to adopt the shorter duration of other countries for works produced there.
Books by George Orwell, for example, including Animal Farm (1947) and 1984 (1949), are now in the public domain in his country of origin, the United Kingdom.
“These works will not enter the public domain in the United States for 25 years,” Mr. Heald recalled. It would literally cost Congress nothing to pass a law saying “we are now adopting the shorter duration rule”, which would put a ton of works into the public domain here.