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Disney’s near-century-long battle with copyright

Wikimedia Commons
Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie” (1928)

Out of all of the cartoon characters ever made, one probably pops up in people’s heads the most. This, of course, is Mickey Mouse himself. Mickey Mouse and his friends have arguably been the single most iconic characters in modern history. Mickey and his lover Minnie made their official debut in 1928 when they featured in the short film Steamboat Willie. Both of them became immediate smash hits and continued to star in Walt Disney, the founder of The Disney Co., other works. Mickey quickly rose to fame and became immediately recognizable to children and adults all over the world. However, nothing lasts forever.

Copyright is an important practice in the art world. Copyright means that the person who puts a copyright on a piece of work or material thing has complete control over how to use it, and has authority over who else can or can not use it. With this comes an expiration to the copyright, where the work enters the public domain and everyone is free to do whatever they please with said work. As of today, copyright lasts for the creator/author’s life plus another seventy years, but it wasn’t always like that. Disney has been a huge factor in changing the copyright laws over the years. Disney has done this more than once, leading to the 1976 Copyright Act and Sonny Boo Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.

At the time of Mickey’s creation, the copyright laws stated that creation has twenty-eight years of protection along with another twenty-eight-year extension, so fifty-six years in total. This means if Disney had done nothing to change any copyright laws, Mickey Mouse would have entered the public domain in 1984. As that date got closer, Disney started to lobby in Congress to extend their ownership over the original iteration of Mickey. The lobbying ended up working because, in 1976, Congress passed the Copyright Act, which took the 56-year protection and extended it even further to have a 75-year protection.

By now, Mickey was set to enter the public domain by 2003. Once again, Disney wouldn’t be happy as 2003 got closer. In this case, though, Congress changed the copyright laws without Disney’s lobbying. The purpose of the Sonny Boo Copyright Act of 1998 was to try to match copyright laws in both the U.S. and the European Union. This law created the copyright laws we have today, which say that protection lasts the author’s life span plus an additional 70 years. After this act passed, Mickey’s copyright was now finally set to 2023, more specifically January 1st, 2024.

Mickey is now officially in the public domain, free to use by everyone for whatever they want. The odd part about this Disney has not decided to once again lobby Congress or use their corporate power to extend the copyright. Instead, Disney has just let it happen. This might be the fact that the only Mickey that is entering the public domain is the original one from Steamboat Willie. Disney has said that new versions of Mickey are unaffected by the copyright expiration, so they might just be ready to let go of their original iteration of him.

The public is thrilled about this, however. One production coming up is a horror movie, Mickey Mouse Trap, where Mickey Mouse takes on the role of a serial killer. Another new creation coming out is a video game, Infestation Origins, a horror game where you have to survive against scarier versions of characters, one of whom being the original Mickey Mouse.

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About the Contributor
Harrison Pacin
Harrison Pacin, Staff Writer
Harrison Pacin is freshman, class of 2027 at MHS this year. He is currently on the engineering pathway and of course, a new staff member of the Pitchfork. Harrison is also planning on joining the TSA to build on his engineering experience outside of class. After high school, he plans to either pursue aerospace engineering, journalism, or potentially law. Harrison is very excited to be included in the Pitchfork staff this, and hopefully coming years.
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