Disney, the media giant that owns some of the most popular and profitable franchises in the world, is facing a challenge to its trademark protection for its iconic mascot, Mickey Mouse, as the original version of the character from the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie is set to enter the public domain in 2024.
Steamboat Willie was the first sound cartoon and the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, who was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. The film was a huge success and launched Disney’s animation empire. However, under the current U.S. copyright law, Steamboat Willie will lose its exclusive protection after 95 years, meaning that anyone will be able to use, reproduce, or adapt the film or the character as he appeared in it without paying royalties or seeking permission from Disney.
Disney has been known for its aggressive defense of its intellectual property rights and its lobbying efforts to extend the duration of copyright protection. In 1998, Disney successfully pushed for the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act, also known as the Sonny Bono Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, which added 20 years to the existing terms. The act was widely criticized by scholars, activists, and artists who argued that it stifled creativity and innovation and prevented many works from entering the public domain.
However, Disney may not lose all control over Mickey Mouse even after Steamboat Willie becomes public property. The company still owns the trademarks for Mickey Mouse and his distinctive appearance, voice, and personality in later films and merchandise. Trademarks do not expire as long as they are actively used and defended by their owners. Disney can sue anyone who infringes on its trademarks or creates confusion among consumers about the source or affiliation of their products or services.
One company that is ready to challenge Disney’s trademark claims is Public Domain Mickey Mouse (PDMM), a nonprofit organization that aims to create and distribute works featuring Mickey Mouse as he appeared in Steamboat Willie. PDMM argues that Disney’s trademarks are invalid because they are based on a character that is no longer protected by copyright and that they are generic and descriptive rather than distinctive and original. PDMM plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign in 2023 to fund its legal battle and its creative projects.
The outcome of this dispute could have significant implications for the future of public domain works and fair use rights, as well as for Disney’s revenue and reputation. While some experts believe that Disney will prevail in court and maintain its monopoly over Mickey Mouse, others suggest that the company may face a backlash from fans and creators who want to see more diversity and innovation in the use of the character. As Mickey Mouse approaches his 100th birthday in 2028, he may find himself in a legal mousetrap or a creative renaissance.