How did Disney Influence US Copyright Law?

Copyright is what allows creators or authors have the exclusive right to reproduce their work in a public domain by authorization for a limited time frame, provided their work falls under the broad categories of literary, artistic, cinematographic, or musical works. Of all the IP types, copyright has the most extended default period of protection. However, even this was deemed insufficient for certain long-running creative IP by the owners, to the point where there has been a long and interesting history of Disney extending copyright terms with extensive lobbying in the USA.

So before we commence, it is necessary to know the history of the USA’s Copyright Laws and Copyright Extension Act.

mickey mouse, disney

US Copyright History

The first Copyright Legislation in the world was passed by the Parliament of Great Britain in 1710, and was called the Statute of Anne. It allowed a protection of 21 years for books already in print and a protection of 14 years to new books. Later, as the renewal process was revised protection could be extended by another 14 years if the author was still alive at the end of it. It was also specified that the works would pass into the public domain after the term expired.

As with other common law nations, British law greatly influenced the development of US copyright doctrine. The US Copyright Act of 1790 granted authors the right to print or publish their work for fourteen years, and if the author was alive at the end of the initial term, they could renew protection for another fourteen years.

However, the US Congress required authors to comply with several formal procedures, which included publication in the U.S. and specific recording processes in the federal district court where the author lived. Therefore, the Copyright Act of 1909 replaced the 1790 law and went into effect on July 1, 1909. It expanded the copyright protection extended the term of protection to 28 years with a possible renewal of 28 years. Later, in 1976, copyright terms were revised again, extending the to the life of the author plus 50 years (later extended to 56 years). Works for hire were protected for a default term of 75 years.

These extensions of Copyright terms were justified by stating that they would ensure that authors would obtain recognition for their published works. This culminated in the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended copyright protection from the author’s life plus 50 years to the author’s life  plus 70 years.

Disney’s Road Towards the Sonny Bono Act

As we all know, US law in particular is infamous for instances of powerful lobbying factions influencing how the law functions or gets passed. In this case, media giant Disney, which owns a truly staggering number of entertainment subsidiaries and associates, fought long and hard to keep their copyrighted intellectual property under their control.

Steamboat Willy, the first and iconic Mickey Mouse animated short, was produced and distributed by Walt Disney in 1928. Under the 1909 Copyright scheme, the Mickey Mouse character had copyright protection for 56 years. The copyright term expired in 1984, so Disney was well aware of this deadline and was duly committed to protecting Mickey Mouse, a character who had become synonymous with the Disney brand. So, in order to ‘safeguard’ Mickey from the clutches of the public domain, Disney began lobbying Congress.

Disney’s lobbying efforts in Congress were successful, resulting in the approval of the Copyright Act of 1976, which superseded the 1909 Act. The Act was quite influential and has a lot of good points- it formalized the theory of fair use, adopted the length of protection for new copyrights based on the author’s death date, and extended copyright protection to some previously existing copyrights. The length of copyright protection for already published corporate copyrights, such as Mickey Mouse, was increased to 75 years.

While works published before 1922 entered the public domain immediately, those published after 1922 were entitled to 75 years of protection. As a result, Mickey Mouse’s copyright protection was extended until 2003.

Disney was adamant about maintaining its copyright protection. As the year 2003 approached, Disney resumed lobbying Congress and was once again thriving. As a result, the Copyright Duration Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998, popularly known as the “Sonny Bono Act,” was enacted, increasing the term of corporate copyrights from 75 to 95 years. This brings us to the present da where the copyright protection for Steamboat Willie, according to the Sonny Bono Act, is scheduled to end on January 1, 2024.

The Future of Mickey Mouse

The only copyright protection that will expire in 2024 is Mickey’s original incarnations, as seen in his first film, Steamboat Willie. Disney will continue to own the rights to all future embodiments of the mouse. As a result, in 2024, the public will be able to create works bases on the original Mickey is black and white and does not wear gloves), but not on the “present-day Mickey” (as he appears nowadays, in full color and with gloves). People will have to wait another year until 2025 to use the modern-day Mickey. Similarly, as Fantasia was released in 1940, the public will have to wait until 2036 to use the Sorcerer Mickey from the film.

With this record of skillfully lobbying for copyright extensions, the public has left to wonder if Mickey Mouse will ever be considered public domain. The fact that Congress has left the CTEA’s copyright expiration in place (rather than extending it again) and that works covered by the most recent extension have officially begun falling into the public domain category indicates Mickey’s copyright expiration in 2024 is, as of now, unavoidable.

Moreover, the political situation for copyright extension has changed, and the need for continued innovation and creativity has emerged as a significant public policy concern, with extensions of copyright protection terms falling out of favor.

The harsh reality is that Disney’s copyrighted works are on their way to becoming public domain and will reach there eventually. Nonetheless, while the expiration of Mickey’s copyright appears unavoidable, Disney owns several trademarks for the mouse, and the most significant feature is that, unlike copyright laws, trademarks do not expire.

Disney is well aware that others can use words that have entered the public domain, and it is well aware that its works will be no exception when the time comes. The remixing, adaptation and reproduction of popular existing works in the public domain have been a cultural cornerstone for generations, and Disney’s extensive lobbying has delayed it for a long time. Indefinite copyright protection undermines a public domain’s ideals that promote and enhance the innovation of and access to creative works, and we should probably look forward to what we’ll get once the mouse is let loose to the populace.

Author: Aranya Nath, Legal Intern at PA Legal.

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