When the clock strikes midnight and takes us into 2024, Disney’s Mickey Mouse will lose its copyright protection. And in today’s Finshots, we tell you whether that spells the end of Disney’s iconic character.

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The Story

In 1927, Walt Disney and the animator Ub Iwerks created a cartoon character for Universal Pictures, the film production giant. They called it Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And they created 26 successful cartoons featuring Oswald.

But in 1928, Disney had the shock of his life. When he tried to renew the contract he found that he didn’t own the rights to Oswald anymore. A man named Charles Mintz who’d negotiated Disney’s deal with Universal had seen the rabbit’s success and used his own studio to create Oswald cartoons for Universal.

Walt Disney lost his first cartoon figure.

But he wasn’t giving up. He needed another cartoon figure. So he probably decided to tweak the rabbit’s sketch itself. He changed the nose, ears, and tail and the rabbit quickly took the shape of a mouse — and just like that, the beloved Mickey Mouse was born!

The earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse | Source: The Walt Disney Family Museum

Now Disney didn’t put a foot wrong this time. He ensured that he owned the copyrights to his new creation. Which meant that no one else could use it without his permission.

But the thing is, copyrights aren’t forever. They come with an expiration date. And in the case of Mickey Mouse, the copyright was expected to last 56 years. Yup, in 1984, the copyright should’ve expired as per the law. But the Walt Disney Group wasn’t happy. So they lobbied the US government and influenced them to extend this term. And then again, when 2003 drew closer, they pushed for another 20-year extension and the law changed again. The new law even got the nickname — the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to Disney’s influence.

But anyway, the copyright protection is finally ending on 1st January 2024 — 95 years after Mickey Mouse first made an appearance in a cartoon. And that means, anyone can soon freely use Mickey Mouse’s character in their content without Disney’s permission. And Disney can’t do much about it.

Wait… What? Won’t that lead to billions of dollars in losses for Disney?

Not quite. Because there’s a catch.

You see, Walt Disney’s OG version of Mickey Mouse featured in a cartoon called Steamboat Willie. And that Mickey didn’t look anything like the popular version of the plump one in red shorts and white gloves we know today. He was a rather lean black-and-white character with a longer nose, thin tail, and smaller ears. And it’s only this OG Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse that’s losing its copyright. So as Jennifer Jenkins of Duke University says:

…anyone can share, adapt, or remix that material. You can start your creative engines too—full steam ahead! You could…create “Steamboat Willie: the Climate Change Edition,” in which Mickey’s boat is grounded in a dry riverbed. You could create a feminist remake with Minnie Mouse as the central figure.

But, here’s where Disney still has an upper hand. See, it’s only the Steamboat Willie version that can be remade for now. And that’s because Walt Disney has created multiple versions of Mickey Mouse since 1928. Each of these newer versions is protected by its own copyright. So they’ll only escape from Disney’s copyright grip as and when they individually turn 95 years old. No one can touch these versions yet without Disney’s explicit permission.

Source: Duke Law

And that means the billions of dollars that Mickey Mouse’s brand earns every year isn’t really under threat.

Also, don’t forget that Disney still owns the trademark to the Mickey Mouse brand. And unlike copyrights, trademarks live on forever. Or at least until the brand is in existence. Trademarks ensure that you don’t use imagery and deceive someone into thinking that it’s promoted by that brand or company. So if you do decide to start a clothing line and stamp the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse on it, it could be a legal grey area. Walt Disney’s financial and legal team could still come after you.

So yeah, it doesn’t look like Disney’s losing Mickey Mouse in any way.

There’s only one thing that might turn into a thorn in Disney’s foot. And that’s to do with managing the brand reputation.

See, when the cute Winnie the Pooh bear also lost its copyright, someone decided to turn its friendly image on its head. They made a horror film in 2022 called Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. Never mind that it didn’t do well. But you’d imagine that children might find it hard to dissociate this image from the original one.

And if the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse also gets portrayed in a negative light, who knows how it could affect future sales? That’s something we’ll have to wait and see.

Until then…

Fun Fact: In 2006, The Walt Disney Company struck an agreement with NBC Universal to re-acquire the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald got a voice for the first time since his creation and starred in a game alongside Mickey Mouse.

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