Not long ago, we reported that Mickey Mouse was entering the public domain, meaning Disney could potentially lose the rights to the iconic character. How could that happen? Isn’t Mickey the intellectual property of The Walt Disney Company? Yes, however, once a copyrighted work is 94 years old, it loses its copyright and becomes accessible for public use (this is called ‘public domain’). This is great from an art history standpoint– it’s much easier to teach about a piece’s history when you don’t have to navigate trademarks and copyright. It’s terrible from a creator standpoint: anyone can use your work. Could the use of Mickey’s image really become a free for all? Yes…and no…but also yes…but mostly no.
Only Steamboat Willie will enter the public domain. The mouse we know and love is safe, potentially forever. That’s an important distinction because only that particular version (which is vastly different than other versions) will enter public domain. Even then, Steamboat Willie could be safe from general use.
A lawyer recently spoke to Newsweek and explained why so settle in, grab a snack, and listen to how Disney gets to essentially bypass copyright laws to keep our beloved mouse safe!
“Mickey Mouse as we know him, in color with gloves and shoes, will not enter the public domain,” lawyer Marc Jonas Block told Newsweek. “Later, including current designs of Mickey Mouse, will still be copyrighted until their terms end. Also, Disney protects Mickey Mouse under both copyright and trademark laws.”
Protecting Mickey under trademark laws means that as long as Disney uses him as their company logo, modern interpretations of the big cheese will not enter public domain.
Furthermore, despite Steamboat Willie entering public domain, the trademark on Mickey potentially prevents people from using even his early likeness. Daniel Mayeda from the UCLA School of Law explains, “You can use the Mickey Mouse character as it was originally created to create your own Mickey Mouse stories or stories with this character. 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 trademark,” and win.”
This is evident with the numerous lawsuits Disney has won against Etsy creators and the like. Many try to circumvent copyright rules by giving clever names or altering images ever so slightly, thinking that makes them safe, but it doesn’t. If the created work brings to mind the original creator’s intellectual property (and isn’t a parody which has special protections), then public domain or not, the intellectual property is protected.
So there you have it. It’s clear as mud, right? The long and short of the story is that Mickey is safe and not going anywhere. It’s hard to imagine a day when Disney no longer uses Mickey as their logo. Mickey will be safe for many, many years to come. After all, Walt said it best: “I hope we never lose sight of one thing: that it was all started by a mouse.B”