Disney is at risk of losing the exclusive rights to some of its most beloved characters, including Mickey Mouse, the cartoon figure known as the brand’s longtime mascot.
The animated mouse was originally created on 1 October 1928, and in 2024, nearly 95 years after his creation, he will enter the public domain.
According to US copyright law, 95 years is the length of time an anonymous or pseudo-anonymous body of artistic work receives protection.
However, there are limitations that will still apply, despite the copyright’s expiration.
“You can use the Mickey Mouse character as it was originally created to create your own Mickey Mouse stories or stories with this character,” Daniel Mayeda, the associate director of the Documentary Film Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law, explained to The Guardian.
“But if you do so in a way that people will think of Disney – which is kind of likely because they have been investing in this character for so long – then in theory, Disney could say you violated my copyright.”
Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the black and white cartoon Steamboat Willie became a pioneer in animation, through its use of synchronised sound – where music and sound effects corresponded with on-screen movements.
Since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance, he has certainly transformed over the years, but it’s that first 1928 iteration that will be stripped of its copyright, Mayeda explained.
Although, Disney will still maintain its copyright on any future variations in film or artwork until it officially reaches the 95-year mark.
Other Disney characters have already entered the public domain, including Winnie the Pooh, who has received a sinister makeover in the forthcoming picture Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, directed by Rhys Waterfield.
As particular aspects of the character that the public generally associates as part of the Disney brand will remain off-limits, Mayeda cautions that artists like Waterfield don’t cross the line when creating new works based on the old characters.
If the public is confused into thinking a particular work is affiliated with Disney, major legal consequences could follow.
Copyrights are time-limited. Trademarks are not,” Mayeda added.
“So Disney could have a trademark essentially in perpetuity, as long as they keep using various things as they’re trademarked, whether they’re words, phrases, characters or whatever.”