A piece of news rapidly making its way around the world (and the web). After 95 years, the most famous mouse in history has become part of the public domain, as the copyright held by Disney for the first Mickey Mouse has expired. But is it truly the case?
To truly understand what is happening to the American giant of animation, it is essential to delve into the regulations governing intellectual property in force in the United States.
In 1998, the Congress approved the Copyright Term Extension Act. Which extended property rights by adding 20 years to the previous 75, as stipulated for rights held by corporate entities.
Hence, the case.
The copyright on Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse, featured in the animated short film ‘Steamboat Willie‘ from 1928, officially expired on January 1st, precisely after 95 years.
Without copyright, is Mickey Mouse in the public domain?
Not quite. Or rather, not entirely.
The Mickey Mouse in question is exclusively the one that appeared in the aforementioned short film. That is, the black and white version, with the pointed rodent nose, pupil-less eyes, and a long tail. Without a shirt, gloves, or shoes.
Therefore, it will be possible to use the image for commercializing clothing, cartoons, or various artistic and commercial projects.
However, as specified by the spokesperson for the Disney group: ‘Since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance, people have associated the character with authentic Disney stories, experiences, and products. This will not change’.
Moreover, ‘The more modern versions of Mickey Mouse will not be influenced by the expiration of Steamboat Willie’s copyright. Mickey will continue to play a prominent role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our stories, theme park attractions, and merchandise’.
In summary, the immediately recognizable Mickey Mouse with gloves, yellow shoes, and red shorts remains the exclusive property of the company.
Furthermore, registered trademarks related to the Disney world image impose additional restrictions on the use of the image.
Quoting the words of Professor Ruth Okediji from Harvard Law School: ‘Disney and other companies use trademarks to extend control over intellectual property. As long as the trademark remains distinctive in providing products and services, the owner can protect it.’
Translated, Disney’s trademark prohibits using Mickey Mouse’s image to lead users into believing they are purchasing a product developed by the American company without its direct consent.
In conclusion, Mickey Mouse remains the property of Disney. The image featured in Steamboat Willie, however, can be used by anyone, provided they do not infringe on Disney’s registered trademark and do not harm its image.
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Image by Ipek Townsend from Pexels