Mickey Shall Be Free!

The end of the year brings with it festive cheer, and a look forward into the new year to come. For those with an interest in intellectual property and the public domain it brings another treat, because every January 1st a fresh crop of works enter the public domain.

We’ll take a look at the wider crop around the day, but this year the big story is that Mickey Mouse, whose first outing was in 1928’s Steamboat Willie, is to get his turn to be released from copyright. [Jennifer Jenkins] from Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, is using Mickey’s impending release to take a look at the law surrounding such a well-protected work.

Mickey has perhaps the greatest symbolism of all intellectual property when it comes to copyright terms, having been the reason for the Disney Corporation’s successive successful attempts to have copyright terms extended. Now even their reach is about to come to an end, but beware if you’re about to use him in your work, for the Mickey entering the public domain is an early outing, without gloves or the colours and eyes of his later incarnations. Added to that, Disney have a range of trademarks surrounding him. The piece makes for an interesting read as it navigates this maze, and makes some worthwhile points about copyright and the public domain.

Last year, we welcomed Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the public domain. Meanwhile if you’re reading this in 2023, we believe our use of a header image featuring the 1928 Mickey to be covered by the doctrine of fair use.

24 thoughts on “Mickey Shall Be Free!

  1. I don’t know if I do like Mickey and Disney anymore.
    As a child, I loved reading Micky Maus and Donald Duck comics in Donald Duck pocket books, though. These stories were amazing.
    But that was another Mick(e)y, he was a private investigator, a smart dude with a sense for responsibility and friendship.
    Not the original Mickey with his red trousers, which caused cheap laughs among the moviegoers.
    Laurel&Hardy did much better here, I think.

  2. It has become fashionable to toss copyright, patents, and trademarks —three separate and different entities involving three separate and different sets of laws— plus a dozen other laws into one pot and call it “intellectual property.”

    The distorting and confusing term did not become common by accident. Companies that gain from the confusion promoted it. The clearest way out of the confusion is to reject the term entirely.


    1. I don’t know if it is “fashionable” or not, but the three uniquely different concepts of Copyright, Patent, and trademark actually do fall under the umbrella term of Intellectual Property. I am just wondering why you think it should be rejected?

        1. I think once you share an idea, you no longer own it. We can agree on that, but if you are able to introduce an idea into the “public space”, and you can legally go through the process of securing that you thought of it, wouldn’t it make sense that you have certain *rights* concerning this idea? Is it just the semantics of “property” that bother you, or is it the concept entirely that someone (corporate or otherwise) can secure rights to an idea if they coneived it first, or secured it (legally) first? My thought on this is simpy that if you can’t secure those rights, you might not share the idea at all, but just the result of the idea (which a lot of companies do, and say it is a “secret”). This hinders others in understanding what they did, and finding alternatives faster.

          1. >> My thought on this is simpy that if you can’t secure those rights, you might not share the idea at all

            By producing and selling a product you are sharing the idea. Unless you lock the idea in a vault, or never express the idea in any way, you may have control over it but you cannot complain later when someone else comes up with the same idea (submarine patents notwithstanding).

            Copyright law protects a particular expression of an idea, not the idea itself – Disney never held rights to anthropomorphic talking cartoon mice, or we wouldn’t have Speedy Gonzales or Jerry (of Tom and Jerry).

            Patent law protects a particular implementation of an idea – a particular vaccine, for example, but not the concept of vaccines in general.

            Trademark covers the commercial use of a particular image, word, or phrase, but only as far as to avoid confusing the consumer. IBM has a trademark on the word “Think”, for example, but that does not prevent anyone else using that word in a way that does not serve to make one look like they are IBM (e.g. Corning’s use of “Think Pink” for insulation, or the Think Pink Foundation).

            The original point was that these are three different concepts, covered by three separate bodies of law, and by rolling them under the single concept of “intellectual property” it gives the impression that the laws which apply to one concept will apply to the others, which is not the case.

          2. In addition to what Paul said, this part I want to reply to:

            ” Is it just the semantics of “property” that bother you”

            Yes, because semantics matter! Especially when somebody claims “this is my property” – which it *isn’t* under the laws regarding copyrights, patents and trademarks… But others can probably explain that way more eloquently, for example Boldrin & Levine

          3. It’s not property. You’re awarded monopolistic rights on it that are supposed to be limited time (but in fact are for life and then some, so not really limited in terms of what you’re able to do with it.. which is rather against the original purported purpose of it.)

            After the monopoly rights granted by the government run out, the rights return to the general public who is allowed to do what they want with it. Violation of the monopoly rights doesn’t mean your property was stolen. If anything the only theft that ever occurs in terms of copyright is when the length of it is extended, effectively stealing from the general public.

      1. Some companies have been known to try to conflate trademark with copyright to get around the limitations of copyright law. For example, Mattel suing over the use of the name Barbie in songs. Although Mattel lost such suits, just the threat of being sued has a chilling effect because of the expense involved. Zorro, Inc. and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. tried it with the Zorro and Tarzan characters as well.

        In the case of Mickey Mouse, Disney has trademarked certain images of Mickey and may try to use that to do an end-run around copyright law. They won’t win, but they could cause a lot of headaches in the attempt.

        1. I definately respect both of your opinions, I am not sure I agree with them though. Getting back to the original term, “Intellectual Property”, to me is just a broad term to cover several areas that are considered “legally blonging to someone”, although as stated above the areas differ and have different sets of legal parameters to define them. A copyright is different in may ways to a patent. I think we all agree on that. I simply think that overall a company (and many do!) can have a way of producing something that they discovered, that also would be patent worthy, but they choose instead to keep it within their own control by using NDAs and other legal means to secure that no one else can know about it. When no one knows about it, no one can review it, and possibly improve upon it. Providing a legally enforcable framework for ideas has both postivie sides as well as negative, and I wasn’t arguing “which is better”, but more just pointing out that IP can cover all sorts of areas as a general term without legal specifics. Mickey was in some ways unique because the concept, naming, and medium in which it was presented (at least at the start) all came form one source. Anyways, thanks everyone for the nice exchange. I hope we all enjoyed it!

          1. Looking at the wall of books behind a lawyer should drive home the law is nuanced and complicated, especially as it comes to IP. I don’t think an internet forum is going to capture all that.

    2. I wouldn’t mind those things being called “intellectual property” so long as an initially small (maybe $1/yr?) but annually exponentially increasing property tax is owed in order to keep the so-called property out of the public domain. Let the hoarders pay to keep their hoard. Let them pay the public for the privilege of keeping things away from the public.

        1. Well, who knows if that country lasts that long in first place?
          A lot can happen in 50 years. Wars, catastrophes, another Trump etc.

          That reminds me of a friend, who thought he was smart because he was saving money on his bank (savings account).

          He calculated how much he’d get back in so and so much years.
          Then I asked him why he believes/assumes that his bank will last so long. He was baffled.

          And about 5 years later, the European debt crisis had happened with a lot of banks closing.

          So yeah, the future is wide open. A lot can happen meanwhile. New laws, too. Maybe copyright law will be altered or removed, who knows?

    1. Love Corridor Crew, they do some really interesting stuff with the knowledge to back it up & guests with serious experience.

      It’s almost a shame they call the videos “…react to” because low-effort reaction videos are pretty much a cancer on youtube and the title was enough to put me off for a long time until I eventually gave one a go.

  3. To those into early cartoons/hand drawn animation, the Russians did use some nice drawing style, too.
    For example, “Stolen Sun” from the 1940s.
    Some of those are on eye level with Disney productions, albeit having had a lower budget.

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