Mickey Mouse is public domain now, but the battle to prevent copyright term extensions is not over

The beginning of the year is a great time for the public domain, since it sees thousands of copyrighted works released from the intellectual monopoly that prevents their free creative use. Which works enter the public domain depends on the details of local copyright law, which varies around the world. But there’s a liberation that has taken place in the US that is particularly worth celebrating. Among the many important works that are now in the US public domain, there is the long-awaited arrival of Mickey and Minnie Mouse as they appeared in the short animation Steamboat Willie.

Beyond its cultural significance, its release into the public domain is notable because of the role that the character has played in the field of copyright law. It was Disney’s obsession with maintaining control over Mickey Mouse that led to the US copyright term being extended multiple times to prevent it entering the public domain. The last extension, formally the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, is widely known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Had that law only extended copyright protection for Mickey Mouse, it would have been a minor if annoying legal aberration. But as a long and fascinating post on the Center for the Study of the Public Domain explains, Disney’s successful lobbying had much wider consequences:

Disney pushed for the law that extended the copyright term to 95 years, which became referred to derisively as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” This extension has been criticized by scholars as being economically regressive and having a devastating effect on our ability to digitize, archive, and gain access to our cultural heritage. It locked up not just famous works, but a vast swath of our culture, including material that is commercially unavailable. Even though calling it the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” may overstate Disney’s actual role in the legislative process – the measure passed because of a much broader lobbying effort – Disney was certainly a prominent supporter, and the Mouse was sometimes a figurehead.

It was feared that Disney would lobby for another extension to copyright in order to retain control of Mickey Mouse after 2023. Fortunately that did not happen, possibly as a result of the growing awareness of, and resistance to, copyright’s imbalance, discussed in Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available). There has already been a rapid flowering of creative re-use, including the application of AI to generate some very un-Disney-like images of Mickey.

The early versions of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie have definitely entered the public domain in the US, but elsewhere it is less clear. Mike Masnick notes on Techdirt that YouTube is still blocking access to Steamboat Willie in some jurisdictions, including in the EU:

The EU is supposed to apply the “rule of the shorter term,’ respecting the entrance into the public domain in other countries if the work originated in those countries, though as that article notes, a German court decided that an 1892 treaty between the US and Germany pre-empted that obligation.

Even in the US, it seems that Disney is unwilling to let Mickey go. On 4 January, voice actor and YouTuber Brock Baker uploaded a new video, with the title “Steamboat Willie (Brock’s Dub),” to his YouTube channel with more than 1 million subscribers. As a post on Mashable explained:

shortly after uploading the clip though, YouTube demonetized the video, evidently on behalf of the erstwhile copyright owner, Disney. Baker also shared a screenshot to his X account showing the video was also being blocked from view in some territories as well.

Baker disputed the copyright claim, and Disney backed down, allowing the new version to be monetised, embedded and shared worldwide. But only for a day or two: on 7 January, Disney again demonetised the Mickey Mouse video, claiming this time that the audio element infringed on its copyright. At the time of writing, it’s not clear whether Disney will drop this claim too, and or whether it is aiming to use this avenue as a way of continuing to control aspects of Mickey Mouse. In addition, Disney still has trademarks that it can wield to limit how people use the liberated Mickey.

The Mickey Mouse saga is an excellent demonstration of the fact that even when a work has unequivocally entered the public domain (in the US at least), copyright can still be used to limit its creative use. A widespread bias in the legal framework favours copyright owners against the general public. The recent events also underline the reluctance of companies whose profits are built on copyright, such as Disney, to fulfil their side of the implicit copyright bargain: that in return for a fixed term of government-backed monopoly protection, the work enters the public domain afterwards for all to use as they wish. As many more popular characters such as Pluto, Donald Duck, Superman, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and James Bond are poised to follow Mickey Mouse into the public domain soon, we might even see Disney and other companies push for yet another copyright term extension.

Featured image by Disney.

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