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What will happen when Disney loses exclusive rights to Mickey Mouse in 2024?

The complexities of US copyright law means that arguably Disney’s most famous character will no longer be their property.

FILE PHOTO: The entrance to Walt Disney studios is seen in Burbank, California.
Lucy NicholsonREUTERS

Mickey Mouse is probably Disney’s most well known character, serving as the face of the company since his introduction in 1928′s Steamboat Willie. While the style and outfit of the character have changed a lot over the last 90-odd years, one thing has remained constant; he is Disney’s property. However, this could all be set to change in less than two years.

Unless the copyright for the character of Mickey Mouse is extended, 2024 will be the final year that Disney would have a near-monopoly on the iconic character. Should the copyright protection expire, Mickey will enter the public domain, meaning people would freely be able to use the character in their films and books, provided it not infringe Disney’s trademark.

Copyright and trademarks are different in that trademarks are not bound by time. This means that Disney will still have control over aspects of Mickey Mouse. If the company feels that the new user of the Mickey Mouse IP is stepping on Disney’s toes, you bet there will be a lawsuit coming their way.

What happens if something is in the public domain?

An example of this is the expired copyright on Winnie the Pooh. While aspects of the character, like his red shirt, remain trademarked, the character itself isn’t. Winnie is set to return to our screens in Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, a gory horror imagining of the bear.

While not using US copyright law, a similar situation happened with the character of Sherlock Holmes. While a number of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories remain under copyright in the US, due to their release date, UK copyright law lasts for 70 years instead of the US’s 80. The detective has been in the public domain in the UK since the end of 1980.

This has led to some not so successful adaptations of the character, including flops such as Gnomeo and Juliet sequel Sherlock Gnomes and Will Ferrell ‘comedy’ Holmes and Watson. What the ruling could end up meaning is the end of Mickey Mouse as we know him, and open the door for creators to take the character in bizarre and hopefully interesting directions.


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