The Mickey Mouse struggle: Will Disney reshape copyright law again?

By Dani Bhadare-Valente, 2L member

The U.S. Constitution codified the principle that an author, innovator, or artist should enjoy the benefits of her intellectual property. Since the adoption of our Constitution, however, U.S. copyright law has been subject to many revisions, and the Walt Disney Company has been a major player in those transformations.

Congress passed its first Copyright Act in 1790. Under this act, an artist’s work could be protected for fourteen years with a renewal period of another fourteen years before the work moved to the public domain. In 1909, Congress passed its next Copyright Act (“1909 Act”). Artists could now protect their work for twenty-eight years with a renewal term of twenty-eight years, totaling fifty-six years of protection.

Disney introduced Mickey Mouse in 1928 with the release of Steamboat Willie. Pursuant to the 1909 Act, Steamboat Willie’s copyright protection was set to expire in 1984 and fall into the public domain. Once there, anyone could use the character without obtaining permission from, or paying, Disney.

With the 1984 expiration of Disney’s mascot soon approaching, it began intensely lobbying for Congress to reconsider and amend the 1909 Act. The company’s lobbying proved successful, because Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976 (“1976 Act”) which transformed copyright law.

A piece of work was no longer protected by a term of years with a renewal period. Instead, the copyright extended to the life of the author plus fifty years. For corporations, the copyright protections lasted for seventy-five years from the year of creation. Mickey Mouse’s date of copyright expiration was now extended to 2003.

Again, Disney worked hard to lobby Congress for another copyright extension in the 1990s, and again, its efforts were rewarded. In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, more commonly known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

The Mickey Mouse Protection Act extended works created on or after January 1, 1978, to the life of the author plus seventy years.  For corporations, copyright protections extend for ninety-five years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever was shorter.

With the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, today Disney’s mascot is dangerously close to being released into the public domain. Unless the company successfully lobbies another extension, Steamboat Willie is set to expire next year.

Based on its history, we should expect that Disney has been lobbying to keep ownership and protection over its beloved character, but it is unclear whether these efforts have been – or will be – successful. Unfortunately for Disney, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the country, and Congress, beyond what anyone may have imagined.

Whether Disney will be able to pull the legislature’s focus away from the pandemic to protect its characters is still up in the air, but this time next year, the public may have a new friend added to the mix.

Works Cited:

U.S. Const. art. 1, § 8, cl. 8

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