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  • Writer's pictureRémi Fouque

How Mickey Mouse twisted copyright laws in the United States

Will Mickey Mouse enter the public domain on January 1, 2024? An analysis of the relevant provisions of US law will allow us to analyze and legally correct this news. MARS-IP informs you !

The news is out, and many articles and websites are announcing it with great fanfare: in 2023, Mickey Mouse will fall into the public domain. Yes, but no: on January 1, 2024, “Steamboat Willie"”s Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain. The more astute among you will have easily done the math: the famous mouse who first appeared in the animated short film "Steamboat Willie" has been protected for almost a century!

Before explaining this "miracle" of legal longevity, let's review the fundamental difference between the concepts of copyright and droit d'auteur (I), before explaining why Mickey Mouse is so extensively protected (II), and why the arrival of the copyright term shouldn't worry Disney that much (III).

I French copyright and American copyright, the two false twins of intellectual property

Although French lawyers tend to use the term "copyright" to translate "droit d'auteur", juggling between English and French, these two terms are actually not interchangeable. Although the two terms are similar in their purpose of legally protecting an original work, whether we read Article §102 of the United States Code ("original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression")[1] or Article L. 112-1 of the French Code de la propriété intellectuelle ("The provisions of this Code protect the rights of authors in all works of the mind, whatever their genre, form of expression, merit or destination")[2], there is a fundamental difference in purpose between them. Indeed, while droit d’auteur; as understood by the European legal systems, protects first and foremost the author of the work, common law copyright defends the interests of the person who will invest in the creation: thus, the copyright and reproduction right owner of an audiovisual work will be the producer, since the work is classified by the Copyright Act as a "work made for hire"[3].

The term date is also different: while French droit d’auteur lasts 70 years after the death of the author, copyright expires 95 years after the publication of the work. How is this even possible? This choice is not arbitrary, but the direct result of Disney's active involvement with the US Congress.

II History of the Copyright Term Extension for Mickey Mouse

When the animated short film "Steamboat Willie" was first shown on November 18, 1928, the term of copyright protection for a "work made for hire" was only 56 years (28 years, renewable once), meaning that the character of Mickey Mouse should have fallen into the public domain in 1984. However, to prevent this from happening, lobbying by the Disney Studios led to the passage of a revised version of the Copyright Act in 1976, which increased the maximum term of copyright to 75 years (47 years, renewable once). This enabled the postponing of expiration of Mickey's copyright in "Steamboat Willie" until 2003.

But that was without counting the tenacity and lobbying of the famous company, which led to the October 1998 enactment of the Copyright Protection Extension Act, since dubbed the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act" or the "Sonny Bono Act,"[4] which added another 21 years to the term of protection for a work made for hire.

This brings us back to a total term of 95 years. What's next?

III The various iterations of Mickey Mouse, a legal arsenal ready for any challenge

What we need to understand in this situation is that the version of Mickey from "Steamboat Willie" alone, drawn in black and white with very different features from the one we know today, will enter the public domain on January 1, 2024. The other versions of Mickey created by the studio over time (in color, with gloves, with a thinner nose and differently designed eyes) each enjoy the same 95-year copyright protection as the original Mickey.

In addition, Mickey Mouse is registered as a trademark in the United States and around the world, allowing Disney to enjoy the fame of its famous character over and over with no time limit, as trademarks can be renewed every 10 years. The company's legal arsenal is ready for any eventuality: for example, Canadian DJ DeadMau5, whose real name is Joel Zimmerman, registered a logo depicting his black helmet with mouse ears, incurring Disney’s wrath, who rejected the registration on the grounds of a potential risk of confusion with Mickey Mouse...

Are you looking to protect your trademark? The MARS-IP team, with its expertise in intellectual property, can help, advise, and support you in your legal procedures under French and German law. We look forward to hear from you!

[1] 17 U.S. Code § 102 - Subject matter of copyright: In general [2] Code de la propriété intellectuelle, article L. 112-1 [3] 17 U.S. Code §101 – Subject matter of copyright: Definitions : “work made for hire” is— (1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire” [4] Before his death, the former pop singer-turned-congressman had actively lobbied for the law's enactment.


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