How Disney routinely exerted influence on the US copyright law to keep its greatest asset — Mickey Mouse – WION

Disney is going to lose Mickey Mouse soon, or at least a version of the character. Photograph:(AFP)

The reason it has taken 95 years for ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse to go out of Disney’s stables makes for an interesting, and a little unsettling story.

The reason it has taken 95 years for ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse to go out of Disney’s stables makes for an interesting, and a little unsettling story.
The Walt Disney Company, commonly known as Disney, is going to lose its marquee character Mickey Mouse at the end of this year. As per the US copyright law, the rights to characters expire 95 years after publication (for works published or registered before 1978). However, don’t expect writers or directors and rival studios to cash in on the opportunity to make their own Mickey Mouse movies and shows as only the ‘Steamboat Willie’ version of the character will go out of copyright. ‘Steamboat Willie’, in case you don’t know, was a 1928 animated short that marked the first appearance of Mickey. It was quite different from the wholesome and lovable anthropomorphic rodent we know him as today.
The more modern Mickey Mouse, the cuddly mouse with red shorts and rounded features, is still under the grubby paws of Disney. While it still must be a fairly big loss, I doubt anybody at the House of Mouse is shedding a lot of tears. The media and entertainment conglomerate possesses some of the biggest and most profitable franchises in the world. The list includes the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pixar movies, ‘Avatar’, countless animated classics like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘The Lion King’, Indiana Jones, and many more. 
The truth is, the execs at Disney could not care less at the loss of Mickey Mouse, particularly the less pleasant version of the character. But the reason it has taken 95 years for ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse to go out of Disney’s stables makes for an interesting and a little unsettling story. 
The first federal copyright law in the US came into existence in 1790. It guaranteed “fourteen years from the time of recording the title thereof”, with a provision for renewal for 14 more years if the author survived. The law was about books, maps, and charts, and excluded music and paintings. They were included in the future. By the time Disney, founded by Walt and Roy O. Disney, came into existence in 1923 as Disney Brothers Studio (it later underwent two name changes and was called Walt Disney Studio and Walt Disney Productions at different points in time), the amendments in the copyright law (the latest was in 1909) allowed 56 years of protection of published works. This included the initial 28 years and an option to renew for 28 more years. 
Also Read: Why Disney could lose the rights to Mickey Mouse
As per this, ‘Steamboat Willie’ should have gone out of copyright in 1984, sending the character to the dreaded (by Disney, anyway) public domain. But Disney began to make serious efforts with Congress (also called lobbying) to further amend the law and extend the expiration duration. It did make a sort of sense, as there had been no changes in the law since 1909. The world, on the other hand, had changed radically, including the wider prevalence of new forms of media like film, TV, and radio.
The Walt Disney Company’s efforts paid off when Congress enacted the Copyright Act of 1976. It allowed published works to be under copyright for the whole life of the author plus half a century more, or 75 years if the said work was owned by corporations. Mickey Mouse was now protected until 2003. 

For the simple reason that Disney was still loathe to let go of its first animated film. Emotional value and so on. Who am I kidding, this was more likely a case of a corporation wanting to squeeze the last ounce of profit from an 80-year-old film. So as 2003 came closer Disney, again, lobbied for Congress to further extend the copyright expiration date. The efforts again bore fruit. And thus, in 1998, Congress enacted the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. Derisively called ‘The Mickey Mouse Protection Act’, it retained the copyright to the author’s lifetime and added 70 years. For works of corporate authorship, like with Disney, the act allowed 95 years from the work’s original publication or 120 years from the creation, whichever expires first. 
Unlikely. As said above, Disney is in charge of by far the biggest collection of pop culture franchises in the world. It only became bigger with its acquisition of 20th Century Fox. The future in which Disney pretty much owns everything you watch on the telly or in theatres is not as unlikely as it looks any longer. Disney is like a mythical monster like the Greek Hydra or the African Kammapa, which gobbles every IP it can get, and grows ever larger. The company may have an image of a provider of cute, cuddly content but the reality is much darker. 
Disney does not need ‘Steamboat Willie’ or even Winnie the Pooh (AA Milne’s 1926 stories set in the Hundred Acre Wood went out of copyright in 2021). It has absolute command over the box office with the MCU movies, almost every one of which grosses close to $1 billion even in the pandemic-affected times. It owns the ‘Avatar’ franchise, each film of which will likely gross $2 billion, and the fifth and final film may cross that incredible $3 billion mark.

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