Mickey Mouse steams ahead toward the public domain – Morning Brew

Steamboat Willie/Disney via Giphy
· 3 min read
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It’s a new year, and that means US copyright law just made tons of cool content available for use free of charge. This year’s Public Domain Day saw the copyright liberation of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and the last Sherlock Holmes stories penned by Arthur Conan Doyle. Since a film crossover of the two seems unlikely, everyone is already looking toward 2024—when Mickey Mouse will be on the list.
Don’t get your hopes up about finally monetizing your illustrated Mickey fanfic next year, though, as only the copyright for the crude black-and-white version of the iconic Disney character, as seen in the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie, will expire. The more familiar color iteration of the world’s most famous mouse is set to remain Disney property for a few more years.
Still, it’s got people wondering about Disney’s next move.
Disney has a reputation for holding on to its billions of dollars’ worth of intellectual property almost as zealously as Scrooge McDuck hordes his cash. That reputation is well deserved:
The last time Mickey was about to hit the public domain, Disney successfully lobbied for a law critics dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act, '' which extended copyright protections for corporations to a maximum of 95 years after a work’s original publication.
Opponents of the legislation saw it as a method for corporations and creators’ heirs to extract payments for art, rather than as a legitimate way to incetivize creativity (dead creators are not going to produce new, interesting works).
As classic Disney films from the 1930s like Snow White near their entry into the public domain, the entertainment juggernaut could embark on another congressional influence campaign to keep its copyrights from expiring.
But it got a lot of bad PR last time, and it’ll certainly be more of an uphill battle this time around. Some conservative lawmakers have been eager to retaliate against the company for its “woke corporate actions,” as Rep. Jim Banks described them. Senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill last year that would retroactively limit copyright protections to 56 years for big corporations.
Even after the copyrights expire, Disney will still have other tools, including trademarks on its characters—so the folks behind a Minnie Mouse indie body horror would still have to make sure that audiences understood it’s unaffiliated with the corporation.
Zoom out: Disney’s not the only studio with something to lose, as the upcoming classes of copyright expiration will include many works from the dawn of cinema. The treasure trove of films held by studios from Hollywood’s Golden Age, like Warner Bros. and MGM (owned by Amazon), may soon become the property of anyone capable of typing “watch [insert movie title] online.”—SK
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