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Copyright law: Mickey Mouse steams into the public domain

02 June 2024

With the famous Disney character entering the public domain earlier this year, our litigation & dispute resolution team reminds us of intellectual property and copyright law.

When considering copyright, even the most established characters must face the music. Copyright over creative works is only held in most jurisdictions for a set period.

Steamboat Willie is often seen as the foundation that changed Disney’s position in history. This short film introduced non-speaking versions of Mickey and Minnie, which developed over the years into the characters we know today.

In the UK, the period for protections is typically 70 years from the date of the creator’s death. However, where creative works are the product of a corporation – in this case, the Walt Disney Company – the corporate interest in that character is protected for 70 years from the end of the calendar year where the work was created. This means that, here in the UK, it could have been argued that Mickey and Minnie entered the public domain in 1998.

However, the complex nature of reciprocal international intellectual property rights – and the broad scope of Disney’s legal protection – means that, functionally, Mickey and Minnie have remained protected under reciprocated United States law.

In the US, various steps have been taken over the years by Disney (and other parties) to extend the period of protection up to 95 years. This means that those early versions of Mickey and Minnie have now entered the public domain and can be shared, performed, reused, repurposed and sampled.

Mickey himself was a reimagining of an earlier character designed by Walt Disney, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and so in the spirit of Disney’s passion for animation and creative exploration, a whole new generation of artists may now seek inspiration in his early works.

If your business needs advice on issues relating to IP rights or registered trademarks, please get in touch with our team.

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Our Legal 500-rated litigation & dispute resolution team help private and commercial clients to resolve a wide range of disputes, including matters that can be resolved through mediation.

Disclaimer: All legal information is correct at the time of publication but please be aware that laws may change over time. This article contains general legal information but should not be relied upon as legal advice. Please seek professional legal advice about your specific situation - contact us; we’d be delighted to help.
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