Why the original Mickey Mouse copyright is expiring New Year’s Day

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Oh, toodles!

The 1928 version of Mickey Mouse will now enter the public domain, despite Disney trying to save its copyright on the iconic character that started it all.

Disney will lose the copyright of Steamboat Willie, the original version of Mickey that appeared in a short animation by the same name.

The earliest version of Minnie, which also appeared in the cartoon, will enter the public domain on Monday, as well.

Mickey Mouse Protection Act

Despite Disney trying to protect its characters, US copyright law dictates that the popular company can hold the hallmark for 95 years.

Over the decades, Disney has made several legal maneuvers to try and extend the copyright.

In 1998, it lobbied for the Copyright Extension Act, which added 20 years, adding up to 95 years. That act would eventually be dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” as it showed Disney’s congressional influence.

“It’s sometimes derisively referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. That’s oversimplified,” Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, who writes an annual Jan. 1 column for “Public Domain Day.” 

“It wasn’t just Disney that was pushing for term extension. It was a whole group of copyright holders whose works were set to go into the public domain soon, who benefited greatly from the 20 years of extra protection,” she said.

Disney will lose the hallmark of Steamboat Willie, the original version of Mickey Mouse that appeared in a 1928 short animation by the same name, on Monday. Disney Animation Studios
The earliest version of Minnie, which also appeared in the animation, will also enter the public domain on New Year’s Day. Disney Animation Studios

How the Steamboat Willie copyright law affects Mickey Mouse

However, more modern versions of Mickey and Minnie are still protected under the law. Disney said it would closely monitor interpretations of the characters.

The only version available in the public domain is Steamboat Willie, whose more rat-like appearance looks remarkably different than the iconic modern Mickey Mouse, which will still be the frontman of Disney’s brands.

The 1928 version also does not speak, giving creators very limited usage of the character.

“Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film ‘Steamboat Willie,’ people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement.

The only version available in the public domain is Steamboat Willie, whose more rat-like appearance looks remarkably different than the iconic modern Mickey Mouse, which will still be the frontman of Disney’s brands. ullstein bild via Getty Images

“That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires,” the spokesperson continued. “We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright,” the company said.

Disney’s other legal battles

Copyright isn’t Disney’s only legal battle, as the Mouse House has been embroiled in a fierce fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, where its Disneyworld theme park is located.

More modern versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse are still protected under the law — and interpretations will be closely monitored by Disney. Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images

In April 2022, legislators in Tallahassee dissolved the district created decades ago by Sunshine State officials to lure the California-based Disney to build a theme park in Orlando. The Disney-run RCID empowered the company to control taxation, zoning and other park maintenance with little input from the state and neighboring county governments.

DeSantis — who is running for president in 2024 — codified the move into law.

The presidential nominee’s hand-picked board, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, also dismantled Disney’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The long-standing fight between the “Happiest Place on Earth” and DeSantis largely started after the governor signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country,” Disney said after the controversial signing.

With Post wires



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