Disney will soon lose the right to the original Mickey Mouse drawings. The character is set to enter the public domain on Jan. 1, 2024.
The drawing, commonly known as Steamboat Willie, was Walt Disney’s first representation of the classic character. Mickey has since morphed into the more modern likeness that we know today.
While the updated cartoon still belongs to the company, Disney has had to fight to keep Steamboat Willie. Disney first brought the whistling mouse to the screen in 1928. At that time, an entity was allowed to own intellectual copyrights for 28 years, then they could ask for another 28-year extension.
Disney’s copyright was originally set to run out in 1984. Before that happened, the company lobbied Congress to change the laws. Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, which gave intellectual creators ownership of their property for life. Then, it would get another 75 years after publication or 100 years after creation with a surviving co-author or company. Walt Disney died in 1966, so the copyright was on borrowed time.
Congress Has Extended Disney’s Mickey Mouse Copyright Twice Since 1928
In 1998, Congress went a step further with the Copyright Term Extension Act—also known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” This gave the author life ownership and gave corporate authors another 70 to 95 years of ownership. As it worked out, Disney gained rights to Willie until next year.
Disney has given no hints that it will fight for more time with the beloved character. And even if it tried lobbying Congress once more, it likely wouldn’t get anywhere. But once a copyright expires, there is no undoing it. So if the company allows the time to lapse, the original Mickey Mouse will hypothetically be free forever. But that doesn’t mean the company won’t make an effort to change that law as well.
“Mickey is the first classic Disney character that’s set to enter the public domain (specifically the Steamboat Willie incarnation),” said MSCHF CCO of the art collective enterprise MSCHF, Kevin Wiesner. “Disney is notoriously litigious, so they’re the perfect target for this kind of copyright loophole shenanigans.”
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