It should come as no surprise that the Walt Disney Company has feverishly tried and succeeded in keeping their signature Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. They have done so by influencing Congress to extend the Copyright Laws, and why wouldn’t they? Mickey Mouse has become so iconic that to lose control of him would translate to lost revenue. But don’t fret about this, of course Disney has a few tricks up its sleeve.
It all started with the Mickey that appears in the 1928 animated short, Steamboat Willie. His copyright was set to expire in 1984; 56 years of copyright protection was the law then. In 1976, Mickey was saved by Congress, which said that works were protected for the author’s life plus 50 years after that. Walt Disney had passed on by this time; he died in 1966. Conveniently, works published before this 1976 extension would be eligible for an additional 19 years of protection since they would have expired before the law was put into effect.
Flash forward to the 1990s… Disney, and other companies began lobbying for yet another extension, because Mickey is nearing his expiration date of 2003. What corporations wanted, not just Disney, was the same extension of 20 years that Europe had granted to its authors in 1993. So now we are at life plus 70 years for a copyright after the extension (the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) was signed by Bill Clinton in 1998. This now puts Mickey Mouse expiring at about the year 2024.
For more on the copyrights around Mickey Mouse click here.
What is Disney to do? They can’t just sit by the way side and let Mickey fall into the public domain, but what choice do they have? They may try to rally support for another copyright extension or they can use a loophole they have found in the wonderful world of trademarks. “Trademark law protects words, phrases and symbols used to identify the source of the products or services.” (Carlisle, 2014). These laws could potentially prevent anyone from using Mickey Mouse as they please.
It could be argued that this is completely unfair. The trademark would basically grant eternal protection to the Walt Disney Company over Mickey Mouse. So what’s stopping Disney from doing this to every creative piece they own?
The answer is that most characters that are formerly copyrighted can be trademarked. According to law.cornell.edu, two basic requirements need to be met in order for an item to be granted a trademark. The item “must be in use in commerce and it must be distinctive.” Additionally, the character must also have “obtained ‘secondary meaning” to be granted eternal protection within the public domain. Basically secondary meaning is when someone sees the character they must be able to associate it with the source immediately.
So naturally Disney has been slapping Mickey on just about anything to do with the Walt Disney Company, and it has worked. Mickey Mouse has a reported “worldwide brand awareness of 97%”, according to an article on PRICECONOMICS. Don’t you see Mickey and immediately say or think Disney?
If you need more proof that this is actually real just read this court ruling: “A character deemed an artistic creation deserving copyright protection…may also serve to identify the creator, thus meriting protection under theories of trademark and unfair competition.” (Carlisle, 2014).
Thus far Disney has 19 different trademarks for Mickey Mouse including for his appearance and films. This is only feasible because Walt Disney was the original creator of Mickey Mouse. If he had just bought the rights to Mickey only the changes the company made to him after that would be protected.
Mickey Mouse seems to be something special which, of course, we knew already. So is it fair that Disney gets to keep their control over Mickey for eternity? I think yes, it is fair. Let me explain why.
Mickey Mouse is too iconic to lose. Not only would a change to his image be devastating to the company, but also to my memories. I grew up knowing that Mickey Mouse meant Walt Disney and I can bet with almost certainty that you did too.
Mickey Mouse is and will forever be the Walt Disney Company. He holds their values and everything they stand for as a corporation. If it was any other character I would be saying that this use of trademarks will be an overreach of power, but not with Mickey.
Do you feel that no one should be able to obtain or use trademarks in this manner?
Do trademarks inhibit fair use?
Is there another iconic character that you feel should also be given the same protection as Mickey Mouse?