If you’ve ever applied for, or researched copyright law, you likely learned one thing above all else: it’s not a perpetual right. So, how, you might wonder, have companies like The Walt Disney Company managed to maintain copyrights on certain creations for almost 100 years? In the case of the Walt Disney Company, the answer is simple. It is powerful enough that it actually changed United States copyright law before its rights were going to expire.
When copyright law was first codified in the United States pursuant to the United States Copyright Act, the copyright duration was limited to 14 years. Today, copyrights can last over 100 years. That’s a huge change, and there are an overwhelming number of copyright experts that will tell you that it is all because of a mouse.
Now that may be a slight overstatement. The copyright duration changed some prior to the creation of Mickey Mouse. The Copyright Act of 1790 included a provision that provided for an additional 14-year term if the creator was alive. Of course, at that point, copyright protection only applied to select creations such as maps and books. But 41 years later, in 1831, the Act was amended to allow for an initial 28-year term, with eligibility for a 14-year extension. Thereafter, in 1909, the Act was changed again to allow for a 28-year renewal instead.
Then the mouse was born. In 1928, Walt Disney released the first Mickey Mouse cartoon: Steamboat Willie. At that point, the work was entitled to protection for 56 years (28 years for the initial term and the 28-year extension). Under the Copyright Act at the time, the copyright on Mickey Mouse should have expired in 1984. But before Disney’s mascot could be pushed into the public domain by operation of law, Disney embarked on a serious lobbying mission to get Congress to change the Copyright Act.
Disney’s lobbying paid off in 1976 when Congress passed legislation which changes the copyright scheme such that individual authors were granted protection for their life, plus an additional 50 years, and for works authored by a corporation, the legislation granted a retroactive extension for works published before the new system took effect. The result was that the maximum term for already-published works was extended from 56 years to 75 years, thereby extending Mickey Mouse’s protection out to 2003.
If the extensions ended there, then obviously Mickey Mouse would be in the public domain right now. But 5 years before Mickey Mouse’s copyright was set to expire, Congress changed the scheme again. In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which lengthened copyrights for works created on or after January 1, 1978 to “life of the author plus 70 years,” and extends copyrights for corporate works to 95 years from the year of first publication, or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. Once again, Mickey Mouse’s copyright protection lived to fight another day. Now, Mickey’s copyright will not expire until 2023. But even that is only 7 years away. The question is: what will Disney do now? Disney would not possibly allow its most famous character to go into the public domain, would it?
Although no one can be certain, if the past is any indication of the future, we can expect that Disney will, assuming they have not already, ramp up the lobbying effort and try to get Congress to pass additional legislation to extend its Mickey Mouse copyright. Whether or not this happens, it is indisputable that Mickey Mouse’s effect on United States copyright law has been profound.