Possibly one of the worlds most recognisable characters, Mickey Mouse has been the face of the Walt Disney Company since his debut in 1928. The Company therefore has done all in its power to ensure it retains its intellectual property rights over the years.
However, as in the UK, copyright protection doesn’t last forever and Disney are nearing a deadline that they may not be able to fix.
Over the years, the duration of copyright protection in the US has changed. Originally the work was protected for 56 years which when it came up for expiration, Disney put pressure of the US Government to make changes to the law to ensure the original Mickey did not fall into the public domain.
This led to the Copyright Act of 1976 which extended protection for already published works to 75 years. This extended the protection until 2003.
As 2003 came around, Disney again began to lobby, which led to the Copyright Term Extension Act 1998. Nicknamed by many at the time as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, the Act extended the protection again, this time to 95 years.
This extension gives 2024 as the next expiration date. If Disney are unable extend again, the original Mickey Mouse design, Steamboat Willie and the Barn Dance design will fall under the public domain, which in effect means it can be used by all without consequences. It isn’t clear whether Disney will try to extend again but they may face more of a challenge now then they did 20 years ago.
This may not have as big of an impact as it may seem as Disney have also secured a number of trade marks over the years. Unlike copyright protections, trade marks do not have a shelf life and therefore Disney can continue to use these to prevent any use of the designs if they wish. As Mickey is such a Disney Icon, as use of Mickey Mouse will have the potential to confuse the public into thinking the goods and services originate from Disney and therefore this would be strong grounds for a trade mark challenge to succeed.
With only a few short years to go, it will be interesting to see how Disney react to this. Keep your eyes on the reading room for any further updates.