How Mickey Mouse Evades the Public Domain

January 9, 2016 commentary 3 min read

This is a great piece by Zachary Crockett from Priceonomics on copyright and trademarks:

Mickey Mouse is, in the words of one copyright expert, “a fucking powerhouse.”

For this reason, Disney has done everything in its power to make sure it retains the copyright on Mickey – even if that means changing federal statutes. Every time Mickey’s copyright is about to expire, Disney spends millions lobbying Congress for extensions, and trading campaign contributions for legislative support. With crushing legal force, they’ve squelched anyone who attempts to disagree with them.

Ultimately, none of this may matter: Even if Mickey’s copyright does expire in 2023, Disney has no less than 19 trademarks on the words “Mickey Mouse” (ranging from television shows and cartoon strips to theme parks and videogames) that could shield him from public use.…Disney has ingrained Mickey Mouse so deeply in its corporate identity that the character is essentially afforded legal protection for eternity, so long as Disney protects him (trademarks last indefinitely, so long as they are renewed).

It’s a sad truth for crusaders of the public domain: the more powerful and recognizable a piece of corporate property is (and thus, the more coveted it is by society at large), the less likely it is to be relinquished.

Personally, this feels like an acceptable tradeoff. If the identity of a corporate entity becomes inseperable from its creative work, then it falls under trademark protection. I imagine it will be difficult for Disney to make the same claims of trademark for Pluto, Goofy and Donald Duck. Resolving to trademark removes the incentive for Disney to continue lobying for copyright extension, which allows millions of other creative works to enter the public domain.

With copyright on Mickey set to expire in 7 short years, it’s interesting to note that Disney’s spending on lobying is trailing off over the last few years. Maybe it will pick back up with 2016 being an election year, or maybe Disney knows they’re eventually going to have to find another means to protect Mickey.

Dollars Disney spent on lobbying efforts since 1997 Zachary Crockett, Priceonomics; data via Open Secrets; figures adjusted for inflation

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avatar of Brandon Keepers I am Brandon Keepers, and I work at GitHub on making Open Source more approachable, effective, and ubiquitous. I tend to think like an engineer, work like an artist, dream like an astronaut, love like a human, and sleep like a baby.