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Taking the Mickey

Hi everyone,

First and foremost – a happy new year to you all! I hope that your festive holidays were full of restful moments and quality time spent with loved ones.

Whilst the festive feeling is now in the rear-view mirror – I can assure you that the Virtuoso Legal team are all back in the saddle and ready to help our clients and contacts take 2023 well and truly by the horns.


The horror(!) of the public domain

As you may (or may not be aware) copyright protects original creative works from unauthorized use and is quite long-lasting. For example, UK copyright for a literary work (e.g. a book) spans the creator’s life and typically 70 years thereafter.

Once this period expires work enters the public domain, and as such can be used freely by all without fear of a copyright claim being brought.

(Crucially this doesn’t necessarily mean that other forms of enforcement won’t be brought – but we’ll get onto that in a little bit…)

This is why last year saw the theatrical release “Willie the Pooh: Blood and Honey”, a fairly graphic and visceral horror film including the characters from A.A. Milne’s children’s books.

The extent to which this will be a big smash at the box office remains to be seen – but it certainly grabbed the attention of the press and public when its teaser trailer dropped. (Search it out for yourself, if you’re not faint of heart!)

It just goes to show how established characters may be treated by third parties once they enter into the public domain.

Perhaps the most famous character approaching the end of its copyright term is Mickey Mouse, who as of January 1st, 2024 – in some respect is the next icon set to enter into the public domain.
But will we see, Disney lose control of Mickey Mouse next year? The reality is a bit more complicated...


Mickey Mouse and Copyright – a history

Mickey Mouse is, of course, a beloved and iconic character that was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1928. The character made his debut in a short film called "Steamboat Willie," which was released in November of that year and quickly became a hit.

In the years following the release of "Steamboat Willie," Mickey Mouse became an integral part of the Disney brand and has remained one of the most recognizable and popular characters in the world.

Disney, as you might expect, has always been very protective of its copyright and has taken legal action in the past to defend its rights.

In 1998, the company pushed for an extension of copyright protections, which was derisively nicknamed the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act" – which extended the copyright period for an additional 20 years.

In 2006, Disney told a stonemason that carving Winnie the Pooh into a child's gravestone would violate its copyright, and the company has also forced a Florida day-care centre to remove an unauthorized Minnie Mouse mural.

Despite Disney's efforts to protect its copyrights, the copyright for "Steamboat Willie," the film that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world, is now set to expire at the end of next year in the United States and a few other countries.

This means that the film can be shown and resold by third parties without permission from Disney, and the original Mickey Mouse can be used in new stories and artwork.

Crucially, however, later versions of the character, such as the familiar version with red shorts and white gloves, will remain protected by copyright and will enter the public domain at different points in the coming decades.
(As such, don't be surprised if we see an even newer version of Mickey that will be designed to be iconic enough to outlast its forebears!)

Walt Disney impersonators – be warned!

It is unclear how Disney will respond to the expiration of the "Steamboat Willie" copyright and the potential use of the original Mickey Mouse by others.

Some believe that the company may try to enforce its copyright strictly on later versions of the character, while others think that it may choose not to pursue legal action.

As such, those believing they can simply create their own derivatives without a keen awareness of the specifics of how they can and cannot use the character – may find themselves in Disney lawyers’ sights!

That is not to mention the fact that many aspects of the character (both in its original form and later expressions) will be protected in whole or part by trade marks which would legally consider Mickey Mouse as a sign that people associate with Disney.

(Incidentally, many believe this is why the Winnie the Pooh 3rd party film went down the snuff horror route – as no one would expect it to originate from the Disney company, which has produced the more recent animations and films).

I think it might be quite difficult to argue that any appearance of Mickey Mouse (as protected by trade marks) outside of Disney's use would not confuse the public - such is the strength of the association between the mouse and the entertainment giant. 

Disney get it

Simply put, Disney understands intellectual property perhaps better than any other organisation on the planet.

It is the main reason why their characters and brands have stood the test of time and their exclusive use of certain characters and IPs keeps audiences coming back for more.

The company has also regularly modernized its films and characters and has released numerous remakes and adaptations of its classic films, including "The Jungle Book," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Lion King."

By modernizing its films and characters in this way, Disney can continue to hold onto its IP rights through new expression and keep its classic films and characters relevant to contemporary audiences.

Suffice it to say – I am excited to see what kinds of fireworks we see on the 1st of January 2024, and I am sure Disney's lawyers are too!


Wrapping up

I hope you found this newsletter interesting and engaging.

If you could freely make use of a copyright property and make your own version - what would it be and why?

I would be really interested in hearing what you think about that!

As stated at the beginning of this email, I really do wish you and your peers a fantastic New Year - and I am excited to see what is in store for you.

Do get in touch if you want to speak to me, my door is always open.


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