The Walt Disney Empire, one step away from losing protection over Mickey Mouse?

The Walt Disney Empire, one step away from losing protection over Mickey Mouse?

By Josefina Mortola y Sol Baudino

As we all know, Mickey Mouse is the world’s most famous mouse and cartoon character. Not only that, but Mickey’s association with Disney is instantaneous, both for consumers and the general public. We all know that the famous mouse propelled Walt Disney and his company to great heights in the film industry as well as in other sectors.

However, will Mickey Mouse always belong to Disney? Does the copyright that Walt Disney has over their characters last forever?

According to the United States Copyright Law, the duration of copyright protection for motion pictures lasts for 95 years counted from their first publication.

Going back in time, the first short film that started the Mickey Mouse boom is known as “Steamboat Willie” (from November 1928). This short film features for the first time the animated character that would later become the world’s most famous cartoon mouse: Mickey Mouse. According to the math calculation, as of January 1st, 2024, the copyright of this short film will pass into the public domain. The question is, what will happen to the rights over Mickey Mouse?

Let’s think of what has recently happened with the movie “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” a horror adaptation of the classic Winnie-the-Pooh book written by Alan Alexander Milne. The movie was produced by Jagged Edge Production and was able to premiere on March 2, 2023, without conflicts with Walt Disney since the image of the famous honey-loving bear has passed into the public domain in January 2022.

The moment the work enters into the public domain, it can be reproduced, distributed, translated, published, or adapted with no need of authorization from the owner (Walt Disney) and without paying any royalties. It is important to note that, even when a work passes into the public domain, the author’s moral rights and the integrity of the work still must be respected.

It is important to keep in mind that, even though Disney will no longer own the copyright over the movie where the first Mickey Mouse appeared, the trademark rights to this famous cartoon character will still belong to Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse is registered as trademarks in numerous countries all around the world, which grants Disney exclusive rights to use and control the image and products related to the character. As long as these trademarks are consecutively renewed, they will continue to belong to Disney as their only owner. In conclusion, in 2024 we will all be able to reproduce, distribute, translate, publish, or adapt the famous movie where Mickey Mouse first appeared. However, Walt Disney Empire will most probably not allow their most famous character to be used so easily and give up without a fight, as the character is still protected under trademark rights.

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