This is a difficult question to answer since Congress continues to push protection of copyrighted works forward through legislation, however, here’s a quick run-down of how a company like Disney, can continue to protect Mickey Mouse as copyrighted material.
History of Copyrighted Material
Until the 1970s, copyright terms only lasted for 56 years. This was until Congress retroactively extended the term of older works in 1976 to 75 years. Just. Weeks prior to that extension hitting the release deadline on works from 1923 into the public domain, on October 27, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed legislation extending it to 95 years.
When Does Disney Copyright Expire?
That extension means that works created by Disney employees or contractors, on or after January 1, 1978, are under the term of protection of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works made for hire prior to January 1, 1978, copyright duration in the United States is 95 years from their publication date only.
What About Mickey Mouse?
Mickey Mouse, having first appeared in 1928, would have been considered public domain work in 2024 will not “enter the public domain” in 2024. Instead, only the first Mickey Mouse cartoon become part of the US public domain on 1 January of that year, 95 years after it was first released. The Mickey Mouse character is trademarked to the Disney Corporation and does not fall under the public domain legislation. Mickey Mouse will remain under trademark until Disney releases it (which is likely to happen when pig’s fly) or if the company ceases to exist.
Steamboat Willie Post-2024
Technically, anyone with a copy of Steamboat Willie would be free to copy and distribute the film from 1 January 2024, the likelihood of them being sued for trademark infringement by Disney is pretty likely. (And not something we’d recommend anyone actually doing.)
What About Other Countries?
While public domain legislation only applies to the United States, Disney isn’t a company that you want to mess with globally, even if the law in your own country applies. Most other countries recognize copyright as expiring 50 or 70 years after the end of the year in which the last “co-creator” died. Walt Disney died in 1966 and Ub Iwerks died in 1971, that means that the earliest the copyright on Steamboat Willie will expire is at the end of 2021 for countries with a 50 year posthumous term (e.g. Canada, Australia, etc.), or the end of 2041 for those with a 70 year term (e.g. the UK and EU, etc.).
Note: Disney Adulting is not a lawyer in copyright law and the content in this post is merely research on the topic. If you have direct concerns/questions about copyright law or Disney trademarks, we recommend contacting The Walt Disney Company directly or obtaining the counsel of a legal professional.
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