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What They Neglect to Tell You About Mickey Mouse and Copyright

Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.

Pictured are a foul-mouthed rat king, as well as Mickey Mouse

Pictured are a foul-mouthed rat king, as well as Mickey Mouse

The Mouse Trap

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' public outcry against the Walt Disney Company couldn't have come at a better time for the conservative Gen Xer, as his embarrassing, unethical, and hate-inspired "Don't Say Gay Bill" coincided with a slew of "content farm" articles about Disney losing the rights to Mickey Mouse. Disney employees staged a protest of the bill, which prohibits teachers from talking about—or even acknowledging—any relationship not deemed "traditional" or "heterosexual" to children up through at least the third grade.

Because Disney refused to support his hateful act, DeSantis and his fellow Republicans threatened to strip Disney of multiple privileges: special tax status for Disney World, the copyright on the 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoons, and not only revoking the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, but amending the Copyright Protection Act of 1976. (In its original form, the CPA limited copyrights to 56 non-extendable years.)

The copyrights on the 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoons are set to expire in 2024, with a fresh batch of public domain cartoons expiring each year thereafter. Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character Walt Disney himself created in 1927, is set to expire in 2023, while many of Walt's Laugh-O-Grams and Alice Comedies already started expiring prior to the Republican Party's outbursts.

But, these copyrights are limited to those specific shorts. For example, in 2024, it would be perfectly legal for you to trace and copy how Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Pete look in Steamboat Willie and use it for a T-shirt. Mickey Mouse's original Milton Mouse inspired look from 1928's Plane Crazy would also be acceptable for videos or merchandise. And if you plan on a comparison DVD, Blu-ray or streaming documentary where The Gallopin' Gaucho plays right alongside Aesop Fables's Hot Tamale, that will be acceptable since those shorts would be part of the public domain.

However, you would not be allowed to use the Kingdom Hearts version of Mickey Mouse, until that specific property loses its copyright status in the decades to come, and if Disney were to renew trademarks for any later versions of Mickey, it would likely result in a few lengthy court battles until you could be allowed to place that keyblade wielding Mickey on a shirt. Sounds simple, but of course, Disney is a little fearful when it comes to the good, the bad and the ugly of copyright issues.

The Good

For the so-called "little guys" Disney's loss of copyright is their gain.

Let's say you plan on writing a fanfiction involving Minnie Mouse. Perhaps you feel it's high time she trade in that skirt for battle armor and a sword that would seem right at home in 1992's Aladdin.

If you use the version of Minnie Mouse that appears in Steamboat Willie, and you do not use any later iteration of the character, and then you make the rest of the story completely original, you would be within your legal, American rights to publish the story as a real book instead of a fanfiction, and you would be entitled to book royalties and to the copyright for that specific title.

If Disney were to take you to court, they would find themselves paying out a small fortune in legal fees, because as long as you could prove that you only used what was already in the public domain, they would have to back away, and you would then be able to enjoy the rights to the book for the rest of your life.

... Or just 56 years if the Republicans had repealed that pesky Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.

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The Bad

Around the time that DeSantis decided he had outgrown The Mickey Mouse Club, the United States copyrights to A.A. Milne's original version of Winnie The Pooh had expired, with the copyrights for stories involving Tigger just barely hanging on for a short while longer, and the UK copyrights standing firm until 2026.

No sooner did this version of Pooh and his friends expire into the public domain in America did the horror film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey go straight into development, and while Disney had prepared to fight the film in court, they ultimately had to realize the futility, given that the movie makers were sticking to the public domain versions of Pooh and his friends and then adapting them into original versions, and they were careful to stay away from the "red shirt" version of Pooh still under Disney's legal control.

Disney of course does not want public confusion between their usage of Pooh, their usage of the original A.A. Milne Pooh, nor any R, X or NC17-rated clones of Pooh, but such is the double-edged sword of the public domain.

Anyone is free to use whatever is in the public domain however they see fit, which means that from 2024 onward, nothing can stop the average American citizen from animating an R-rated version of Steamboat Willie, and for each year thereafter, new iterations of Mickey and friends will become public domain as each short loses copyright.

The Ugly

Disney is not alone in the fear of life after copyright.

In 2022, The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 still stands in place, granting copyright claims for any print, musical, film, or digital work for an author's entire life, with an additional 70 years for those they leave behind. Per the U.S. Copyright Office, "For works made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter."

This means that if you create anything, you own the copyright for your entire life, and your descendants can enjoy the royalties for decades after you've left this world. Ending that protection at 56 years strips the descendants of that future.

For example, Jonathan Livingston Seagull author Richard Bach was just turning 86-years-old at the time DeSantis and the Republicans were talking about reducing copyright law to 56 years. He published Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a full book in 1970, meaning that under such new law, by 2026, those copyright protections his family would be counting on would be a distant memory, and the book would fall into the public domain by default.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Steamboat Willie, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, three different artworks bound by copyright law.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Steamboat Willie, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, three different artworks bound by copyright law.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was already 57 years old in 2022. Depending on how quickly the end of The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 would arrive, the Schulz family would lose the last remaining hold they had on the annual special, along with the rights to all of the preceding Peanuts comic strips to the public domain.

Also a loss for small-time authors of works, who would only enjoy their own rights until midway through middle or old age, depending on when the copyright goes into effect. For these lesser-known authors, such a repeal would diminish their legacy. And the 56-year cap would not be up for discussion, if not for DeSantis and the Republican Party's insistence on hate.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Koriander Bullard

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