At midnight on January 1, 2023, the earliest version of Walt Disney's iconic mascot Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie, entered the public domain. A minute later, at 12:01 am, the trailer for a low-budget slasher film, Mickey's Mousetrap, was released on YouTube. Within ten hours, another trailer was revealed, this time for a videogame named Infestation 88. Although popular fictional characters going public and subsequently being adapted into different media is not new, the news of the termination of the popular rodent's copyright made headlines worldwide.
The Animator, The Mouse and The Money
The year was 1928. Los Angeles-based animator Walt Disney had just lost the rights to Universal Pictures for his character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. At a time when the future of his studio seemed bleak, Disney conceived the idea of an anthropomorphic mouse with features similar to that of Oswald. Soon, Walt and fellow animator Ub Iwerks came up with the sketches of Mortimer Mouse. But it was not long before Mortimer's name was changed to a more friendly-sounding Mickey, following the advice of Disney's wife, Lillian.
Mickey Mouse debuted on November 18, 1928, in the movie Steamboat Willie, and the rest is history. Audiences were impressed with how neatly Disney had managed to synchronise the soundtrack and dialogues with the action in the film. Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon to feature music, but it was better at it than any other cartoon that the audience of that period had seen till then. By the early 1930s, popular cartoons like Felix the Cat had disappeared, and Mickey Mouse ruled the screen.
Mickey was now an icon, but what made Walt Disney Studios an empire was its merchandising. This is where merchandising executive Herman Kamen came in. Disney had already started licensing Mickey Mouse, but Kamen completely transformed the process. Within three years of his 1932 deal with Disney, Herman Kamen turned the animation studio into a well-oiled, revenue-producing business that made over $35 million through Mickey Mouse merchandise. Mickey Mouse was now everywhere, from soaps and caps to watches and hairbrushes.
But What Is Copyright?
According to the official website of Cornell Law School, copyright is "the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something". Copyright promotes progress in the arts and sciences by ensuring that other people or organisations do not steal an artist's work.
However, copyrights are not absolute. They remain active only for a specific number of years. After this, the work enters the public domain. Although the United States laws do not mention the term public domain in the U.S. Copyright Act, the term generally means "content that isn't protected by copyright law", as explained at copyrightlaws.com. Once the work enters the public domain, anyone can use it to make money without the creator's permission; the creator no longer has the exclusive right to their creation.
The purpose of copyright expirations is to help future creative and scientific minds use the work to improve it for the benefit of society. Furthermore, it prevents an artist from having a monopoly over the content (like how, say, artist Anish Kapoor copyrighted the colour vantablack and prevented any other artists from using it). And Walt Disney Studios was doing just that at the time. In fact, up untill 1995, $15 billion out of the company's value of $22 billion came from Mickey Mouse alone.
However, according to the Copyright Act of 1909, effective when Steamboat Willie was released, any copyrighted content would remain so for 56 years since its release. Following this law, Mickey Mouse should have entered the public domain in 1984. Yet, it took place 40 years later, in 2024. This is where the masterful lobbying of the company comes in.
Lobbying for Mickey
In 1976, eight years before Mickey's copyright was supposed to end, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976. This law extended the rodent's copyright for 19 more years to 2003, thus changing the total duration of copyright for any work to 75 years. Although efforts for this act started as early as the 1960s for various reasons, Disney's lobbying efforts played an important role.
Disney would again lobby for extending the copyright; the 1998 Copyright Terms Extension Act that finally extended the copyright of Mickey Mouse up untill this year was almost exclusively the result of the company's lobbying efforts.
Disney claims to spend anywhere between 4 to 5 million dollars on lobbying efforts each year. This lobbying was done through influential connections in the media industry, such as the Motion Picture Association of America. Disney also made significant campaign contributions to 18 of the 25 Congress members who sponsored the bill. Sources suggest that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner played an important role in convincing then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to extend the copyright of Mickey Mouse for twenty more years.
However, after the 1998 act, Disney did not make any significant effort to extend the copyright of Mickey Mouse any further.
A PR Masterstroke
By now, Disney's efforts to retain the rights to its mascot had started gaining a bad reputation among the general public. An important thing to remember here is that the acts mentioned above extend the copyright not only for Disney's works but also for every creative and scientific content produced in the United States of America. Because of this, many works of art which would have been available for public use decades ago are still protected by copyright statutes. Besides, the company's political donations did not go unnoticed either.
This growing negative perception of The Walt Disney Company, coupled with the constitutionality and rising costs of their lobbying efforts, took Disney's approach to a completely different route after implementing the 1998 act.
Disney now went on an acquisition spree to reduce the extent of the losses they would be incurring by giving up Mickey. Between 1928 and 1995, the company had made just four acquisitions worth $200 million when adjusted for inflation. After 1995, this number rose by a staggering 22 acquisitions, placing the company's worth over a whopping $160 billion as compared to the $15 billion value of Mickey Mouse. Some of the most significant acquisitions include sports channel ESPN, Pixar and Marvel studios, Lucas Films Ltd., streaming platform Hulu, and most importantly, 21st Century Fox.
So, when Mickey Mouse finally went public on January 1, 2024, Disney did not have much to lose. Besides, only the first black-and-white rendition of Mickey Mouse is now in the public domain. The copyrights for other versions of Mickey Mouse, including the most famous coloured version with red pants and white gloves, are yet to expire.
Disney also killed another proverbial bird with this one stone. Due to the negative public image of its lobbying activities, the entry of Mickey into the public domain is also seen as a victory of the law over a monopolising media conglomerate by those not well versed with Disney's acquisition strategies.
The Murderous Mouse Mania
Soon after the new year began, it began raining Steamboat Willie memes and posts on the internet. Many joked about "creating" Mickey Mouse now that it belonged to everyone, but the demand for horror movie adaptations of the iconic movie saw a sharp rise. The rise of the murderous mouse was not only a result of disdain for the Walt Disney Company's efforts to retain its mascot but also a result of the iconicity of the character. Like fellow Disney creation Winnie the Pooh, Mickey is a character one would most strongly attribute to innocence. Subverting Mickey into a hideous murderer tinkers with that innocent character association in our minds, effectively heightening the horror. Some people have also pointed out scenes from Steamboat Willie that make sense as a cartoon but would be classified as body horror if tried out in real life.
Economically speaking, the horror genre profits hugely from a dedicated inbuilt audience, making it easy to rake in millions out of a micro-budget horror film. For example, The National News states that the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity was made with a budget of $215,000 and grossed a whopping $193 million at the box office. Some of the greatest directors in Hollywood, from James Cameron (Piranha 2) to Peter Jackson (Bad Taste), started as horror movie makers. So horror movies and videogames based on Steamboat Willie had long been on the cards.
Although Disney has lost the copyright to the character that created its empire, it still holds its trademark. This means the company can still sue a creator if they make it seem like their Mickey Mouse production might have been made by Disney. Going by Disney's history of litigations, they might even take such breaches seriously.
But all said and done, Steamboat Willie's Mickey Mouse entering the public domain has set up a chain of copyright expirations for Disney. As multiple versions of Mickey Mouse and his famous friends enter the public domain over the next few years, it will be interesting to see the shift in dynamics between The Walt Disney Company and its establishing icon.
More importantly, it remains to be seen what place it will hold in the lives of the upcoming generations now that anyone is free to use the character wherever they want and whichever way they want.
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