Will people take the Mickey now US copyright has expired in Steamboat Willie?

January 3, 2024

There has been some interesting news in the world of copyright law this week. It is now the case, as of 1 January 2024, that it is possible for individuals and companies to rework and use the earliest version of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. This is because the US copyright has expired in the earliest versions of the cartoon characters which were shown in the Steamboat Willie film. Companies and individuals can do so without seeking any permission from the original copyright owner, Disney, and there will be no cost for doing so.  

Some companies have already done so with a trailer being released for a short slasher movie which features a take on Mickey Mouse and is not the kind of film you’d ordinarily expect to see Mickey Mouse in! Another company has also already unveiled a new video game, again featuring a take on the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse.  

This is a popular news story in the world of copyright law as it is well known that Disney seeks to protect its intellectual property rights, including copyright, rigorously. The copyright term for the earliest version of Mickey Mouse was also extended a couple of times and a specific US law was dubbed “the Mickey Mouse Protection Act”, but the time has finally come, and the copyright term has expired.  

In reality, it is the case that Disney will have protected its Mickey and Minnie Mouse brands and characters through trade mark protection, and also more modern versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse will still have copyright protection which has not expired, so companies and individuals do not have creative licence to do whatever they like and they will still have to act in accordance with the law. No doubt Disney will be keeping a watchful eye on how this plays out in practice and will enforce its intellectual property rights if necessary.  

This news story highlights one key point, which is that copyright lasts a very long time, and therefore companies and individuals need to ensure that they are using any copyrighted works correctly and with permission if necessary to avoid any issues.

What is copyright?

At the most basic level copyright seeks to protect the form of expression of ideas, not ideas themselves.  

Copyright protects the following and the protection is automatic whenever you put “pen to paper”:

  • Original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works which are recorded in some way – this includes computer programmes, graphic works and photographs  
  • Databases
  • Sound recordings, films or broadcasts
  • Typographical arrangements of published editions

How long does copyright last for?

In the UK there are slightly different timings to the US when it comes to how long copyright lasts in original works (such as photographs, music and any other creative original works). Generally speaking, copyright will exist for the life of the author plus 70 years. There are nuances so it is always best to check if you think length of copyright could be an issue in respect of any content you are using.  

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright gives authors of works rights to control the use or commercial exploitation of the works that they have created. This means that copyright is infringed by anyone who carries out any of the copyright owner's exclusive rights without the permission of the copyright owner, unless an exception to copyright applies.  

Reproducing a copyrighted work in any material form, including storing it in any medium by electronic means, would amount to an infringement of copyright. This is just one example and there are many others.  

It is really important to be aware of the ownership position of any third-party materials which you are using to avoid any alleged copyright infringement.

Tips for when you’re working with copyrighted material

Here are some practical tips to consider:  

  • Make sure you are using a copyright notice on any key materials being created which are original and protected by copyright.
  • Make sure you have contracts in place which assign ownership of copyright where necessary from third parties – and if you need to put a retrospective assignment in place then do this as a priority.  
  • Deal with any letters before action received from third parties promptly which allege copyright infringement.  
  • Put licence agreements in place if necessary to exploit your own copyright on a commercial basis.  
  • Consider secure storage with a third party of any key copyright materials.  
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