Public Domain Day and Steamboat Willie

Under the copyright laws of the United States, a copyright registration is valid for the life of its author (or last dying author if a jointly held work) plus 70 years. If the term of a copyright does not depend on the lifespan of its human creator, then corporations who own works known as “works made for hire” likely control the copyright for a term limit of 95 or 120 years. In short, copyright term is long

Public Domain Day: What it is and When to Celebrate

When something enters the public domain, we all celebrate it. In fact, copyright enthusiasts get to celebrate on an already HUGE holiday – New Year’s Day! In the kingdom of copyright nerds like me, New Year’s Day is also known as Public Domain Day! Yay! 

So what does that mean? It means that works registered under the copyright laws of the United States are expiring! No, we are not holding a wake for them, silly! And no, just because they are expiring doesn’t mean they will start to smell bad, or taste funny. No! 

When copyright expires, that means the time (known as duration or term) during which the owner of a copyright holds the exclusive rights, ceases to exist. The work is now legally available for others to use in their works without permission or payment to the owner.

The fact that copyrights are descendible property should concern you if you have neglected to insert them into your will or otherwise estate plan.

A Brief History of Copyright Term Extension

In history, there are some companies that earn legend awards for their vigorous defense of their copyrights, and the Walt Disney Company, or the Mouse House, is one of them. From Fantasia to Mickey Mouse, Disney has likely served as the pipeline for young trial lawyers seeking to sink their teeth into any alleged infringer since before World War II. 

This is probably because Disney is still sore about having released Fantasia in the middle of WWII, a time when movie theaters were targets for air raids. In fact, my French grandmother owned two movie theaters in Lyon, France, at the time of the German occupation, and indeed, lost them to explosives. 1940 was not the best time to go to the movies. 

Since 1940, Disney made up time, quite literally, culminating in the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, aka the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. This act extended duration from life of the last-surviving author plus 50 years to 70 years, and for works of corporate ownership (those “works made for hire”) from 75 to 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever term expires first.

Mickey Mouse is Now in the Public Domain

Mickey Mouse first published in 1928 as Steamboat Willie, therefore, the copyright expired on December 31, 2023, and entered the public domain on January 1, 2024. And boy were folks lining up to use Mickey.

  • As early as 2021, New York art & design collective MSCHF sold out of tokens that collectors could redeem using a unique digital code for a 5″ tall, cast vinyl sculpture of “Famous Mouse.” 
  • This year, upon expiry, independent video game developers Nightmare Forge Games released an early-access game on indie distribution platform Steam, entitled Infestation: Origins, which operates as a co-op horror in which the first-person player is an exterminator treating sinister infestations caused by twisted versions of “classic characters and urban legends.” 
  • A production company led by Jaime Bailey (What Lurks Beneath) released a trailer for a horror movie in post-production, entitled Mickey’s Mouse Trap and starring Simon Phillips (The Witcher).
  • The memes are just getting started! 

It looks like it is going to be a bumpy ride for good ole Steamboat Willie in the Public Domain. Why is that? Because only this version of Mickey is in the public domain. That means that all versions after him are still, you guessed it, protected.

For more legal insights on copyright or to consult with a lawyer about an upcoming project and want to confirm the use of public domain material, contact Attorney Lee Morin at Morin Legal for a consultation to ensure your project is on solid legal ground.

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