Hot Dog! Mickey Mouse is Leaving the Clubhouse! … Sort of.
The image of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie is set to enter the public domain in 2024. And what this means is, the rights to Mickey Mouse as depicted in Steamboat Willie will be fair game to anyone.
And here’s why this is happening…
Works protected by copyright law are only protected for a certain amount of time. Depending on who created the copyrightable work and how it was created will determine how long the copyright protection lasts. Either way, it can last anywhere between 70 and 120 years from the date it was created.
In Disney’s case, Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie gets 95 years of copyright protection from the date it was first published. Since Steamboat Willie was released in November, 1928 its copyright protection expires in November, 2024. And alas, it shall be in the public domain.
Now, Disney is known to be a shark (think Bruce from Finding Nemo) when it comes to protecting its intellectual property. And to that end, they’ve taken some steps to bolster their brand protection position leading up to November, 2024.
Disney has reincorporated the Steamboat Willie Mickey character into logos (aha! trademark protection) and into short clips before the start of Disney movies (aha! copyright protection).
Disney is clearly positioning itself to keep ‘the OG Mouse’ Disney’s property. And they are well aware that their best bet to achieving this is via trademark protection not copyright.
The OG Mouse will enter the public domain regardless of what Disney does or has done to reincorporate Steamboat Willie Mickey into new movies and other works. Any adaptation of the Steamboat Willie Mickey clip could be considered a derivative work, but the only parts of a derivative work eligible for copyright protection are those that are original and new.
So, how does trademark law change things?
Well, trademark protection can exist forever. If the owner of a trademark continues to file the proper paperwork with the US Trademark Office, rights to the trademark can remain intact forever and ever. Since Disney holds trademarks for the Steamboat Willie Mickey, they can enforce their trademark rights against anyone trying to incorporate the trademark into their product or service offering. This arguably creates perpetual protection for the Steamboat Willie Mickey, but only insofar as use by others is considered use of the trademark under trademark law and that use likely to cause consumer confusion as to who is selling the product or service.
In other words, if Disney can't show that the use of Steamboat Willie Mickey is the 'trademarked version', then they're in tough to present a merit-based claim of trademark infringement.
So, anyone looking to use the Steamboat Willie Mickey in their business to promote their products or services should make note of the fact that even though the OG Mouse will be entering the public domain, that is strictly in the sense of copyright protection. Trademark protection is an entirely different area of brand protection, one I can imagine Disney relying on extensively come November, 2024.