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Mickey Mouse and Friends: Public Domain Pitfalls Unveiled

The field of intellectual property, in recent weeks have seen a flurry of headlines surrounding the expiration of copyright protection for the original version of Mickey Mouse. This development has sparked misconceptions among some, who mistakenly assume that any commercial use of Mickey Mouse is now fair game due to the character entering the public domain in the United States. However, the reality is far more nuanced, as outlined below.

The evolution of copyright law in the United States cannot be discussed without acknowledging the significant influence of Disney. In 1998, the United States Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act, affectionately dubbed the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act.’ This legislation extended the term of protection for creative works in the United States to 95 years after their initial publication. Despite hopes for further extensions, no subsequent prolongations have been granted, cementing the expiration of copyright protection for iconic characters like Mickey Mouse.

Similarly, other beloved characters like Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh have also made their way into the public domain. Despite debates over the commencement of copyright terms, the undeniable reality is that these characters are now accessible for public use in the United States.

However, the notion of public domain does not equate to unrestricted use. Nuanced exceptions and variations in subsequent iterations underscore the complexity inherent in navigating the legal landscape of intellectual property. While the original versions of Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh have entered the public domain, newer iterations and adaptations remain under copyright protection. This means that unauthorised commercial use of these newer versions constitutes copyright infringement.

Disney, recognising the importance of safeguarding their intellectual property, has secured trademark registrations in the US for both the word mark ‘MICKEY MOUSE’ and various figurative versions of the character. Trademark protection, unlike copyright, can endure indefinitely, playing a crucial role in preventing deceptive use or any affiliation or association with Disney.

Looking beyond the borders of the United States, various jurisdictions operate under different copyright models, each with its unique terms of protection. While the original versions of Mickey Mouse and other characters may have entered the public domain in the United States, copyright laws in other countries may still afford protection to newer versions and adaptations.

Navigating these international legal landscapes presents additional challenges, underscoring the need for a nuanced understanding of copyright and trademark laws in each jurisdiction. Businesses intending to incorporate iconic characters like Mickey Mouse or Winnie-the-Pooh into their operations must exercise caution and conduct thorough research to ensure compliance with intellectual property laws.

While the expiration of copyright for the original Mickey Mouse is a significant development, businesses must remain diligent in understanding the complexities surrounding the use of iconic characters to avoid legal repercussions. Seeking expert advice and adhering to copyright and trademark laws is essential to navigate the legal maze successfully and protect against potential legal challenges.

When enquired about this to our senior IP experts they insisted that ‘Copyright protection is a critical aspect, and  securing proper authorisations and licences becomes crucial. Seeking expert legal advice is crucial to ensure compliance and to safeguard against potential legal challenges in the evolving landscape of intellectual property rights. Vakilsearch remains committed to assisting businesses in understanding and navigating these complex legal issues to protect their interests effectively.

Akash G Varadaraj