Mickey Mouse is one of the most iconic cartoon characters in history, recognized all over the world as the mascot of The Walt Disney Company. But who exactly owns the copyright to Mickey Mouse? Here is a comprehensive look at the history and current copyright status of the world’s most famous mouse.
The Creation of Mickey Mouse
Mickey Mouse was created in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks and first appeared in the animated short film Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928. This was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon released to the public, although Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho were produced earlier as silent films. Steamboat Willie was Disney’s first cartoon with synchronized sound and was a major breakthrough in animation. It was an immediate success and propelled Mickey Mouse into stardom.
At the time of his creation, Mickey Mouse was owned exclusively by Walt Disney through his company Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, which was founded by Walt and his brother Roy. In 1929, the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was renamed Walt Disney Productions. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Mickey Mouse’s popularity exploded and he became the cornerstone of the Disney empire.
Disney’s Early Copyrights on Mickey Mouse
As the creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney held the original copyright to the character. In the early decades of Mickey’s existence, copyright terms were much shorter than they are today.
The first Mickey Mouse copyright was registered in May 1928 for the short film Plane Crazy, and originally lasted only 56 years. When Steamboat Willie was released later in 1928, it received a separate copyright that would last until the end of 1984. Each new appearance of Mickey Mouse in subsequent Disney shorts and comic strips received its own individual copyright in this era.
As the lead animator for Mickey, Ub Iwerks held a minority stake in the original copyrights. But in 1930, Iwerks left Disney to form his own animation studio. Disney then bought out Iwerks’ remaining copyright stake in Mickey Mouse, meaning the Disney company owned Mickey’s copyright outright beginning in 1930.
The Copyright Term Extension Act
Under the original United States Copyright Act of 1909, copyright lasted for only 28 years, renewable for an additional 28 years if renewed in the final (28th) year. This means Mickey Mouse’s original Steamboat Willie copyright would have expired in 1984, allowing the character to enter the public domain.
However, in 1976 Congress passed the Copyright Act which extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for works that had already been copyrighted but not yet entered the public domain. This added 19 years to the Steamboat Willie copyright, extending it to 2003 instead of 1984.
Then in 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act (also known as the Sonny Bono or Mickey Mouse Protection Act) extended copyright terms by 20 years. This added another 20 years to Steamboat Willie’s copyright, extending it to the end of 2023. The Copyright Term Extension Act prevented Mickey Mouse and other early Disney creations from entering the public domain.
Current Mickey Mouse Copyright Duration
Under current US copyright law, copyrights generally expire 95 years after the date of original publication. Each individual Mickey Mouse film, comic, etc. receives its own copyright term. Here are some key dates:
- Steamboat Willie (1928) – Copyright expires in 2024
- Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) – Copyright expires in 2078
- Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (2006) – Copyright expires in 2101
As long as Disney continues producing new works featuring Mickey Mouse before the previous ones enter the public domain, they can effectively maintain control of the copyright indefinitely through a process called copyright term extension.
Trademark Protection for the Mickey Mouse Character
In addition to copyright, Mickey Mouse is also protected through trademark law. Disney first registered a trademark for Mickey Mouse in 1929. Trademarks do not expire like copyrights as long as they are actively used in commerce and renewed. Disney has kept Mickey Mouse trademarks up to date over the decades.
Disney holds multiple registered trademarks related to Mickey Mouse and his image, including:
- The name “Mickey Mouse”
- The visual image of Mickey Mouse
- The Mickey Mouse signature
- The Disney castle logo with Mickey Mouse ears
These trademarks help Disney maintain exclusive control over the Mickey Mouse character and prevent unauthorized use of his name and image. Even after the earliest copyrights expire, Mickey Mouse’s trademark will remain under Disney’s control.
Copyright law varies from country to country around the world. While the earliest Mickey Mouse copyrights are close to expiring in the United States, his copyright status differs internationally:
- European Union – Copyright lasts for 70 years after the creator’s death. Since Walt Disney died in 1966, his works will remain copyrighted in Europe until 2036.
- Canada – Copyright lasts for 50 years after the creator’s death, so Mickey Mouse is protected until 2016 in Canada.
- Australia – Follows the 70 years after death rule like Europe, so Mickey Mouse is copyrighted until 2036.
Disney holds thousands of copyrights and trademarks related to Mickey Mouse around the world. Even after the 1928 Steamboat Willie copyright expires in the US, Disney will be able to maintain control over Mickey Mouse in much of the world through later works that remain under copyright internationally.
Public Domain Status
No incarnation of Mickey Mouse has entered the public domain yet. The earliest Mickey Mouse works such as Steamboat Willie will remain under copyright in the US until 2024. Internationally, most versions of Mickey Mouse will stay copyrighted until at least 2036.
When Mickey Mouse does eventually enter the public domain, it will only apply to the earliest works in certain countries. For example, Steamboat Willie may enter the public domain in the US in 2024, but later cartoons and movies will remain protected. Trademark will also give Disney continued control over the Mickey Mouse character.
Impact on the Disney Company
What will happen to Disney and Mickey Mouse once the copyrights begin to expire? Here are some potential impacts:
- Loss of exclusivity – Anyone will be able to freely use the imagery and characters from Steamboat Willie and other early Mickey Mouse cartoons without permission once they enter the public domain.
- Loss of revenues – Public domain status will prevent Disney from continuing to sell and license early Mickey Mouse works, resulting in a loss of revenues. Currently Disney earns millions each year from licensing the Mickey Mouse image.
- Character integrity – Disney may have difficulty maintaining the integrity of the Mickey Mouse character if unauthorized versions begin circulating widely.
- Continued trademark protection – Disney’s trademarks will still give them control over the name, image, and logo of Mickey Mouse even after copyright expires.
- New copyrighted works – As long as Disney keeps producing new Mickey Mouse cartoons, comics, etc., the bulk of the character will remain protected by copyright.
While the loss of copyright protection on early works may have some financial impact, Disney can likely maintain their control over the core Mickey Mouse character through continued trademark protection and new works. Much of the iconography people associate with Mickey Mouse (his contemporary image, Mouse ears, theme parks) came later and will not immediately enter the public domain.
Legal Strategies Disney May Pursue
Disney has a few legal strategies they can use to preserve their rights over Mickey Mouse:
- Continue lobbying for copyright term extensions – Disney has successfully lobbied Congress before to prevent Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain.
- Argue for perpetual copyright – Disney could push for copyright law reforms to allow certain characters (like Mickey Mouse) to remain under copyright indefinitely.
- Register copyrights internationally – Disney will likely ensure newer Mickey Mouse works are copyrighted worldwide to maintain control even if old U.S. rights expire.
- Trademark and sue – Rapidly trademark any new uses of Mickey Mouse and sue those that use his image or name without permission.
Disney has a major incentive to prevent Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain, and have successfully used lobbying and lawsuits in the past to target companies using the Mickey image without authorization. They will likely ramp up legal action and political lobbying as the earliest copyrights begin expiring over the next decade.
Significant Mickey Mouse Copyright Dates
Here is a summary timeline of key copyright dates for Mickey Mouse:
|Steamboat Willie released and originally set to enter public domain in 1984
|Copyright Act extends Steamboat Willie copyright 19 years to 2003
|Copyright Term Extension Act adds another 20 years of protection until 2023
|Current US copyright expiration date for Steamboat Willie
|Expected public domain entry in US for Steamboat Willie
Mickey Mouse remains fully protected under copyright and trademark law, with Walt Disney Company controlling all rights to the iconic character. The earliest Mickey Mouse works, like Steamboat Willie, will begin entering the public domain in the United States starting in 2024. However, Disney will likely lobby for further copyright protections and continue to produce new Mickey Mouse media to maintain control internationally and over the core aspects of the character.
While Mickey’s status as a corporate mascot and lucrative intellectual property for Disney will eventually be eroded by public domain status on his earliest works, Disney has a powerful arsenal of legal and lobbying resources to forestall that eventuality as long as possible. The battle over who controls the copyright to Mickey Mouse will continue for decades to come as Disney fights to extend their rights while copyright limits incrementally expire.