January 24

Copyright expiry: Mickey Mouse soon in the public domain?


At the end of 2023, Disney's flagship character, Mickey Mouse, will fall into the public domain in the United States. We explain the meaning and consequences of this change.

But before going into detail, it is important to understand the concept of "copyright". Indeed, the American copyright is generally confused with the copyright in the current language, whereas these concepts differ on several aspects.

Differences between copyright and authorship

Copyright and authors' rights are often confused, especially because they aim to protect the same works (original creations such as books, films, etc.). However, these two concepts present important differences, which are linked to their objectives. French copyright (but also found in most European countries) tends, as its name indicates, to protect the author (the person who creates the work). Anglo-Saxon copyright focuses on the economic exploitation of the work.

Thus, copyright protects the people who invest in intellectual creation (e.g. employers, producers), contrary to author's rights, which are more focused on the authors of works.

For example, in the United States, the owner of the copyright on an audiovisual work will automatically be the producer, whether it is an individual or a production company. The author of a film thus changes according to the sale of the catalogs. This logic does not apply to copyright: the producer will have to transfer the rights from the author(s) who participated in the film. It will be necessary to make a written contract.

In addition, the copyright and author's rights regimes present a certain number of differences, notably the duration of protection: 95 years from the publication of the work for copyright, 70 years from the death of the author for French author's rights. Moreover, if these two rights can exist by the mere fact of their creation (without any formality being necessary), it is generally recommended to proceed to a copyright registration with an Intellectual Property Office. Certain actions (such as counterfeiting) require a registered title.

Finally, it should be noted that copyright only exists in "Common Law" countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Australia and Canada. It is subject to specific rules, notably the use of the words "copyright" or the symbol ©. Outside these territories, the © symbol has no legal value. To learn more about this issue, we invite you to consult our article on the different symbols (®, TM and ©).  

Disney's battle to extend its rights to Mickey

The image of the mouse created in 1928 by Walt Disney himself is protected by copyright in the United States, and in other countries.

1928 : birth of the Mickey character

The birth of the Mickey character is associated with the release in 1928 of the black and white cartoon Willie, The Steamboat or Steamboat Williewhich made Mickey Mouse known to the world. After having enjoyed a monopoly for 95 years, the copyright will expire at the end of 2023, and the work will fall into the public domain.

This means that this cartoon can be freely distributed and that the characters of this work, including Mickey, can be used without authorization from Disney.

The interest for Disney of the copyright on Mickey

The Disney Company's intellectual property rights over the Mickey Mouse character allow it to control its use and image, as well as to earn significant revenues. Indeed, the copyright confers to its beneficiary a certain number of rights on the exploitation of the work - but this monopoly ends when the copyright falls into the public domain. To this day, it is still necessary to obtain Disney's authorization in order to use Mickey's image for a video game, a T-shirt, a restaurant, etc.

The Disney company actively protects its rights. In the 1970s, an American comic book artist used the image of the famous mouse in several illustrations without authorization. He eventually had to pay Disney nearly $200,000. In 2014, Disney also attacked the Canadian DJ Deadmau5 which had registered a logo similar to its own in about thirty countries:

Disney" and "deadmau5" logos in dispute

The numbers explain this reaction: the magazine Forbes estimates that the mouse would bring in $5.8 billion annually for Disney.  

Disney's influence on U.S. copyright law

It is difficult to part with your golden goose. The Disney company has understood this and for years has exercised a very strong lobbying of the American legislator in order to maintain exclusive rights to the Mickey character for as long as possible.

Initially, Mickey should have fallen into the public domain in 1984, because at that time the term of protection associated with copyright was only 56 years. In the 1970s, the Disney Company began lobbying the U.S. Congress, arguing that the duration of U.S. copyright should be brought closer to that of European copyright (70 years). This argument was heard and a new Copyright Act was passed in 1976, increasing the term of protection to 75 years.

The copyright on Mickey was therefore to be maintained until 2003. Again, Disney's political action committee was very active and conducted sponsorship efforts in the late 1990s, so Congress again voted to extend the copyright to 95 years, derisively dubbed the " Mickey Mouse Protection Act "(= "Mickey Mouse Law").

However, it seems that this time the copyright will not be extended. The famous mascot is expected to fall into the public domain by the end of 2023. However, the company has legal defenses despite this change.

2023: end of copyright - what consequences for Disney?

End of copyright protection for the Mickey character

It is fundamental to note that only the original version of the Mickey character in the 1928 short film will fall into the public domain this year. Disney will still hold the rights to later versions, such as the one with white gloves, which Mickey did not initially wear. However, " over the years, Mickey Mouse has undergone several transformations of his physical appearance and personality. In his early years, the mischievous Mickey looked more like a rat, with a long, pointed nose, black eyes, a small body with spindly legs and a long tail "explains the National Museum of American History.

Evolution of the Mickey character over the years

Disney maintains a strong legal arsenal

In addition, Disney remains protected by trademark law. The company owns several trademarks that feature the Mickey character, including the official logo of the Walt Disney Animation Studios on which Mickey Mouse appears since 2007, itself protected by a registered trademark. However, unlike copyright, the duration of protection of a trademark is theoretically unlimited, because a trademark is indefinitely renewable.

Thanks to the protection offered by its trademarks, Disney can for example prohibit the commercial use of another character named Mickey Mouse.

Disney still has legal means to defend its iconic character and its universe.

If you want to know more about copyright, do not hesitate to contact us.


copyright, Disney, duration, mickey

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