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How Mickey Mouse has impacted copyright protections

On Behalf of | Jul 11, 2017 | Intellectual Property

Artists and writers in New York understand the importance of copyright protection. The unauthorized use of original creations can cost money that the artist or writer has worked very hard to earn. Content creators who take advantage of modern copyright laws may not realize it, but may have a famous mouse to thank for the duration of the protection they enjoy.

As the Art Law Journal notes, Mickey Mouse premiered onscreen in the 1928 black-and-white cartoon Steamboat Willie. Under the copyright law at the time of Mickey’s debut, Walt Disney’s new creation, once registered, would enjoy copyright protection for 28 years. The law also provided that the copyright could be renewed by the holder for an additional 28 years once the initial term expired. This meant that Mickey would enter the public domain in 1984. As Disney’s intellectual property grew, Mickey became an essential part of the Disney image. Disney lobbyists were sent to Washington to push for longer copyright protections.

In 1976, Congress extended copyright protection time limits. New works were now protected for the author’s lifetime plus 50 years. Past works, like Mickey, had their protection extended to 75 years. In 1998, Congress acted again, granting both Mickey and new works another 20 years of copyright protection. Disney currently has about 6 years before Mickey could fall into the public domain.

As the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press points out, not every use of a copyrighted work constitutes infringement. Of course, there is no infringement if the author gives permission to reproduce their work, but even unauthorized use avoids infringement under the legal doctrine of fair use.