Mickey Mouse will become available for the public domain on January 1st, 2024 under a U.S. copyright law, which states that intellectual property on artistic work expires 95 years after its first publication.
In the past, Disney and other corporations lobbied aggressively to change copyright laws for their own benefit. This time, however, it’s unclear whether the entertainment giant plans to make another move to prevent Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain.
When did Mickey Mouse first appear?
Mickey Mouse made its first appearance in the animated short Steamboat Willie, which premiered on November 18th, 1928 at what was then the Colony Theatre on Broadway. The short, which is one of the first cartoons to use synchronized sound and music, features a Mickey Mouse that looks more or less like the character does now. The only major difference is that Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse is wearing a hat.
Prior to Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse actually appeared in the animated short Hungry Hobs. The black-and-white footage features Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who is considered the prototype for Mickey Mouse. Hungry Hobs was produced before Steamboat Willie but was never released. According to the Daily Mail, the footage for Hungry Hobs went missing and was only found again in 2011.
When Mickey Mouse debuted in 1928, Disney’s copyright was protected for 56 years. But since the character has since become Disney’s official mascot, the company lobbied hard for the Copyright Act of 1976, which extended the company’s exclusive rights to the character to 75 years. Fast forward to 1998, Disney lobbied for a further extension, granting itself copyright on Mickey Mouse for 95 years.
What will happen when Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse expires?
Once the copyright expires, anyone wishing to use the Mickey Mouse character on projects will no longer require to request permission or pay copyright charges. This means any filmmaker can create non-Disney stories with Mickey Mouse at the center.
If Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse does expire, the character could follow in the footsteps of Winnie the Pooh, which entered the public domain after its copyright expired last January. Since then, Jagged Edge Productions announced Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a movie adaptation of the children’s classic in which Pooh and Piglet become sick serial killers.
Associate Director of the Film Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law Daniel Mayeda confirmed to The Guardian that people will be allowed to develop new storylines for Mickey Mouse when it becomes available for the public domain. People, however, could still face copyright claims if their versions of Mickey Mouse are too similar to Disney’s original.
“You can use the Mickey Mouse character as it was originally created to create your own Mickey Mouse stories or stories with this character,” Mayeda told the British publication. “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 copyright.”
What is Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey about?
In an interview with Variety, director Rhys Waterfield, who also wrote and co-produced the film, said that Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey will see Pooh and Piglet as “main villains…going on a rampage” after being abandoned by a college-bound Christopher Robin. Waterfield revealed that “Christopher Robin is pulled away from them,” and since he’s not given them food, “it’s made Pooh and Piglet’s life quite difficult.”
“Because they’ve had to fend for themselves so much, they’ve essentially become feral,” Waterfield continued. “So they’ve gone back to their animal roots. They’re no longer tame: they’re like a vicious bear and pig who want to go around and try and find prey.”
Although A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh stories are now out of copyright, Waterfield is well aware that Disney retains exclusive use of their interpretations of Winnie the Pooh and his friends.
“We’ve tried to be extremely careful,” the filmmaker said. “We knew there was this line between that, and we knew what their copyright was and what they’ve done. So we did as much as we could to make sure [the movie] was only based on the 1926 version of it.”
Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey doesn’t have a release date yet, but Waterfield shared that editing and other post-production work on the movie are being expedited following strong fan reactions to the film’s promotional images.