Disney’s copyright has expired – is their Mickey Mouse character now free for anyone to use?
The short answer to this is no. Although it is true that copyright protection in the USA for the original Mickey Mouse character shown in the first Mickey Mouse cartoons, such as Steamboat Willie etc. has expired, there are other forms of intellectual property protection that apply to Mickey Mouse and Disney’s characters and stories in general.
Copyright protection is a right which subsists automatically in an original work. An original work is essentially a literary, dramatic or artistic work that has not been copied from another work. For the duration that the copyright subsists the proprietor has the right to take legal action against another party that copies all, or a substantial part, of that original work. Different countries protect original copyright works for a specific period of time and in this example the copyright was extended by the US Government for several terms. Finally, protection expired on 1st January 2024 for the ‘Steamboat Willie’ version of Mickey Mouse.
Other forms of intellectual property protection still subsist in the Mickey Mouse brand. For example, Trade Marks protect signs or words that can be used to indicate the origin of goods and services and when registered can last indefinitely, usually providing that the mark itself is being used and the renewal fees are paid.
What versions of Mickey Mouse can be used?
In the current situation this means that the public are free to use the original version of the famous mouse as depicted in Steamboat Willie; but this certainly does not mean there is a free-for-all in the use of the Mickey Mouse character or name. It is also important to note that the expiry of this copyright applies only in the USA, as copyright is a national right and therefore the ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse version may still be protected by copyright in other countries.
There appears to be at least a handful of people who are prepared to attempt to capitalise on the expiry of the copyright. A trailer for a seemingly low budget horror film was released on the very date that Disney’s copyright expired. The proposed film is called Mickey’s Mouse Trap and is set as a horror comedy thriller. Whilst the depiction of the mouse appears faithful to the Steamboat Willie version, the use of the words ‘Mickey’ and ‘Mouse’ in relation to movies could well be considered to infringe Disney’s trade marks in the word Mickey Mouse. The film does not have confirmed release date and it would be surprising if Disney allowed the use of words similar to their registered trade marks to go without challenge.
If Disney were to challenge the use of the words Mickey’s Mouse Trap in the film, could they use their trade mark registrations? The short answer to this is yes. Registered trade marks give the owners the right to challenge the use of the mark, or similar marks, in respect of identical or similar goods and services to which it is registered. For trade marks that have a reputation or are famous marks there is additional protection available that extends beyond similar goods and services.