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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

Are Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the Disney gang destined for the Public Domain in 2022?

Ever since Walt Disney first put pen to paper and drew the mouse that would become the cornerstone of an entertainment empire, the clock has been ticking on the right to protect that mouse from unauthorized copying. Now, the hands on that clock may be approaching midnight.

The Walt Disney Company owns the rights to Mickey Mouse (he was originally and perhaps ill-advisedly called Mortimer Mouse) as well as his animated cohorts and it regularly polices third party infringement of those rights. Indeed, Disney has amassed a massive catalog of characters that is the envy of media companies everywhere and the company’s success clearly is the result of the company's large and ever-growing treasure trove of intellectual property.

It also manages to rake in annual revenues and profits totaling in the multiple billions of dollars from the use and licensing of the copyrights to Mickey, et al. And every one of those dollars, ultimately, is dependent on Disney’s ability to prevent others from using Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and the rest of the gang for their own purposes.

To enforce its rights, Disney relies on U.S. copyright law, whose origins can be found in the U.S. Constitution, to provide the legal grounds for protecting the exclusive right to put their images in and on cartoons, television shows, movies, amusement park rides, apparel, and an untold array of toys, games, and plastic gizmos. But there’s a catch.

Copyright law does not allow exclusivity in perpetuity. Eventually, copyrights expire.

Generally speaking, U.S. copyright law is limited to the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. However, as with most laws, there are exceptions. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (often referred to as "The Mickey Mouse Protection Act" because Disney successfully lobbied Congress to extend the protection period) addresses when a creation is a "work for hire," which protects a company's copyright for 95 years from first publication or 120 years after its creation, whichever ends sooner.

Nevertheless, everything eventually comes to an end and for some of Disney’s most beloved characters that end (at least in so far as they are protected by copyright) may be coming this year.

At most risk to Disney are the characters that first appeared in the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne in 1926, the best known of whom include Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga, and Roo. These iconic stories and characters have played a huge role in Disney’s success since they were acquired from Milne’s estate in 1961 and account for as much as $6 billion in annual revenue for Disney, some of the most lucrative characters owned by the company. But Disney could lose control over some of the Milne characters in 2022.

For example, beginning in 2022, Disney won't be able to sue anyone that uses A.A. Milne's original Winnie-the-Pooh stories as inspiration, adapting the fictional bear for new projects or original creative works. As well, it will not be able to prevent anyone from using the original line drawings from the book that were drawn E.H. Shepard.

Nevertheless, Disney can enforce its copyrights against anyone that tries to use Disney's version of Winnie the Pooh and the trademarked characters it created based on Milne's stories. This includes the rights to Milne's books and characters created after 1926, including Tigger, who first appeared in 1928.

And, of course, there is always the possibility that Disney may again try to extend the copyright on Winnie the Pooh. Most legal experts believe that an attempt to change the law would be a longshot for Disney, but, as in 1998, it wouldn’t be the first time and, more importantly, there are numerous other Disney copyrights set to expire in the near future, including protection for Steamboat Willie -- the earliest version of Mickey Mouse – which will expire in 2024.

The implications, numbering in the billions, are considerable.

Why It Matters. In the United States, copyright law originated in the Constitution and were originally intended as a means of encouraging creators to create by protecting the fruits of their work from unauthorized copying and affording them a financial incentive to profit from those creations. However, advances in technology, including the digitalization of virtually everything from books to music to movies, have rendered copyrights much harder to police and then to enforce and have even called into question a regimen that discourages unauthorized use of those creations. Disney is one of the companies at the forefront of advocating for the protection of copyrighted material and, if it should have its way, might well advocate modification of U.S. copyright law to afford protection in perpetuity, an extremely controversial proposition.

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