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Mickey Mouse: Disney’s Rights to Empire-Building Character Questioned

Mickey Mouse Steamboat Willie Disney rights
Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie.

Mickey Mouse in the public domain? Disney’s rights questioned

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Mickey Mouse belongs to Walt Disney Enterprises. Back in the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president of the United States, they made sure that the U.S. Congress extended copyright protections – from 75 to 95 years: the Copyright Term Extension Act a.k.a. “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

And when those copyrights are about to expire, Disney will quite possibly take up the fight once again to extend them for all eternity and beyond – minus a day (or a minute), so as not to go against the U.S. Constitution. Or at least for another quarter of a century. And then for another quarter. And so on. If that happens, the U.S. Congress will in all probability do as they’re told, to hell with freedom to create new works out of old ones. After all, there’s money involved. Lots of it.

‘The Mickey Mouse Protection Act’

Ironically, despite Disney’s arduous efforts, there may be a loophole in The Mickey Mouse Protection Act. As Joseph Menn explains in the Los Angeles Times:

“Brand experts reckon his value to today’s Walt Disney Co. empire at more than $3 billion. Acts of Congress have extended Mickey’s copyright so long that they provoked a Supreme Court challenge, making Mickey the ultimate symbol of intellectual property.

“All signs pointed to a Hollywood ending with Disney and Mickey Mouse living happily ever after – at least until a grumpy former employee looked closely at fine print long forgotten in company archives.

“Film credits from the 1920s revealed imprecision in copyright claims that some experts say could invalidate Disney’s long-held copyright, though a Disney lawyer dismissed that idea as ‘frivolous.'”

“Although studio executives are not yet hurling themselves from the parapets of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, the unexpected discovery raises an intriguing question: Is it possible that Mickey Mouse now belongs to the world – and that his likeness is usable by anybody for anything?”

The Mickey Mouse in question is the one found in the 1928 short Steamboat Willie. That particular Mickey would be the one supposedly in the public domain.

Now, will the all-powerful Disney conglomerate allow anyone to touch their cherished (and immensely profitable) icon, whether or not its copyright has officially expired? Go on dreaming.

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Guest -

Why is it that so many people think that if they can’t take  something from the public domain – NOTHING else will ever get created? It is only the expression of the idea that cannot be copied. Not the idea. So instead of relying off someone else’s work -why not just create work of your  own? Add to the world of creativity instead of using it.

Joey McDermott -

For a useful analysis of the widespread problem of claiming copyright on public domain works, see Jason Mazzone’s article, “Copyfraud,” published by New York University. It is available for (free) download here:


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