Mickey Mouse is eighty years old, as I mentioned last week, and in the United States a piece of intellectual property has historically entered the public domain before that time. So how is it, then, that Mickey Mouse remains copyrighted by the Walt Disney Company? It’s actually a long and complicated trail, and I haven’t had time this week to give it full diligence, but I wanted to at least bring it up in the context of this blog because it effects not only Mickey Mouse but Casper the Ghost, Bugs Bunny, Alice in Wonderland, Thumbelina, and on and on and on, eventually effecting basically everything. A century from now we’ll be discussing the public use of Harry Potter, Barbie, and on and on. The legal matters of children’s media may not be the first thing parents get really enthused about, but they’re things that we have to think about nonetheless.
So the case with Mickey Mouse is that he was created and presented to the public by the fall of 1928. With a seventy-five year copyright under American law (for works by a corporate author), Mickey as a character was scheduled to enter the public domain in 2003. I’m redacting incredibly here, but as that date approached the Disney company worked very hard to help pass legislation that would extend that; the official name of the legislation was the Copyright Term Extension Act, but it is very often known as the Sonny Bono Act and even pejoratively as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” It extended the copyright for works by a corporate author to 120, rather than 75, years.
I’m no Disney-phobe, as many of my posts have demonstrated, and I personally do not begrudge the company for seeking to maintain legal control over their most valuable property (and please note that the trademark on Mickey Mouse is an entirely different issue than the copyright). So I’m not trying to editorialize either way, to condemn or praise. Instead, what I will do now is provide some links to online articles that discuss this in greater detail.
Here is the actual law itself as made available by the Library of Congress. Here is the Wikipedia summary.
This 1999 article from Wired magazine talks about the law’s extension into books and other media. And here’s a 1999 ASU student paper opposing the bill.
The law passed in 1997, but then the plot thickened when a group of plaintiffs, mentioned in the Wired article, challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was upheld. Here’s an article by Chris Sprigman analyzing the case as it went through the appeals process. Here’s an interview from the time with two of the plaintiffs.
For those for whom this is truly gripping, there is a lot more information available just by googling “mickey mouse copyright” or the name or nicknames of the act.
Now, even after the Sonny Bono Act went into effect and was upheld by the Supreme Court, there remained a little confusion about whether Mickey, at least in his original incarnation, was ever properly copyrighted in the first place. This article from the L.A. Times last August goes into pretty good detail about that subplot, and here’s a short commentary on it from The Disney Blog.
In summary, don't bet on Mickey entering public domain anytime soon. What we should hope for, rather, is that Disney itself keeps using him in innovative and entertaining ways. Like I said last week, I think extending him into curriculum-derived preschool television is a great step in that direction, and there are plenty of other avenues to take the character for older audiences.