How Mickey Mouse Has Evaded Entering the Public Domain

mickey mouse
mickey mouse
Nicescene / Shutterstock.com

Mickey Mouse is iconic internationally. Our favorite mouse has been around longer than the amount of time when he would qualify for falling under the public domain. However, Disney has fought this at every turn in an attempt to hold on to their adorable moneymaker’s rights.

How does the Public Domain work?

After a set amount of time, the intellectual property of a given work will be lost, and it will enter the public domain. Once something is in the public domain, anyone and everyone can use it freely without the fear of intellectual property lawsuits. Works can also be forfeited to the Public Domain, but for the purpose of intellectual property laws, the issue almost always has to deal with the expiration of IP rights.

Intellectual property laws operate under the assumption that the rights of the intellectual property in question will be protected for a period of time that allows the descendants of the original creator to reap its benefits. It is argued that these laws protect content creators and allow them the freedom to create unique works, knowing that they will receive financial credit and compensation for their hard work.

One of the first US copyright laws was the Copyright Act of 1790, which stipulated that creative works were entitled to up to 28 years of protection. The act was updated in 1831 to extend that amount of time to 42 years and again in 1909 to make it 56 years. This is of special importance for Disney because the 1909 Copyright Act was in effect when Mickey Mouse was created.

What does this mean for Mickey Mouse?

Since Mickey was created in 1928 when the 1909 Copyright Act was law, his copyright protection was set to expire in 1984. However, as that deadline drew closer and closer (and as Mickey continued to rake in the money at Disney), the company made a push to lobby for amended copyright legislation. In 1979, it became official that the expiration date would extend until 2003, 56 years becoming 75 years under the new law.

By this point, Disney learned to get far ahead of these deadlines and continued to push for new copyright laws. They got their wish in 1998 with the Copyright Term Extension Act, which raised the 75-year limit to 95 years. This lengthened Disney’s rights on Mickey Mouse to 2023, where it rests today.

To successfully lobby for these Acts’ creation, Disney paid roughly $150,000 in direct campaign contributions through their Super PAC, according to Watchdog.

Is this a good thing?

Ever since the beginning of Disney’s push to keep Mickey, there has been debate about whether or not these developments are good for society. Some argue that our life spans have expanded since the original laws were put into place in the late 18th century and that legislation should expand accordingly. However, that hasn’t stopped activists from staging protests and requesting that Disney “free Mickey” to the public domain.

In the years leading up to the 2023 expiration date on Mickey Mouse’s intellectual property protection, we can expect that this conversation will take the center again as Disney once again pushes to keep their favorite character in their pocket. The future of intellectual property laws will certainly be exciting!

Looking for more information about copyright laws and the Public Domain? Check out this handy resource from Cornell!