Starting today, Disney’s Mickey Mouse is finally “free”

New year new life.

January 1st is New Year's Day and also International Public Domain Day, a day that creators love to see.

At this time of year, American books, audio and video works that have been copyrighted for more than 95 years are "free" so that everyone can use them legally and free of charge.

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This year it’s the turn of the 1928 works, and something special is that Mickey Mouse is also one of them.

When Disney is known as the "most powerful legal department on the planet", this day is extremely memorable.

Mickey Mouse is free, but not completely free

I just hope we never forget one thing – it all started with a mouse.

Disney founder Walt Disney said this on a 1954 television show. It goes without saying how important Mickey Mouse is to Disney.

On May 15, 1928, Mickey Mouse appeared in the public eye for the first time in the test screening of the silent animation "Planet", but received little response.

▲ 1928 "The Airplane Man".

On November 18 of the same year, the black-and-white animated short film "Steamboat Willie" with sound was released, and Mickey Mouse, who became an instant hit, officially made his debut. This day is also designated as his birthday. Now Mickey Mouse is 95 years old.

▲ "Steamboat Willie" in 1928.

This first-generation Mickey Mouse could not speak, had no whites of his eyes, had a naughty character, and played other animals as musical instruments. It was somewhat different from the later classic image of wearing red shorts, yellow shoes, and four-fingered white gloves.

Starting from January 1st, Disney no longer enjoys its exclusive copyright, which is good news for creators – there is no need to go through the procedures to get Disney's legal nod and pay royalties, they can directly create secondary creations, and their works can still be used make money.

For example, you could make Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie talk or draw it in color.

▲ "Steamboat Willie" in 1928.

In fact, this day could have come earlier.

The original Mickey Mouse only had 56 years of copyright protection, and was supposed to enter the public domain in 1984. However, Disney and other companies lobbied Congress together and pushed for changes to the U.S. copyright law twice, and other works in the same year were also postponed.

The first time was in 1976, when the Copyright Law was revised and it was "extended" for another 19 years.

The second time was in 1998, when the Copyright Term Extension Act, nicknamed the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act", was passed. The original Mickey Mouse's "life" was extended by 20 years, for a total of 95 years, until the last moment in 2023.

Seeing that 2024 is here, Disney seems to be following the rule of "no more than three", but it is not sitting still and there are still ways to protect Mickey Mouse.

On the one hand, the copyright of Mickey Mouse from 1928 has expired, excluding other Mickey Mouse after the original.

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In order to fit in with the mainstream aesthetics and animation technology of each era, Mickey Mouse's image and character are constantly changing, and each "fine-tuned" Mickey Mouse has an independent copyright.

Mickey Mouse put on gloves in 1929, had a pet dog named Pluto in 1930, and appeared in color animation in 1932. The mischievous character of the first generation was also given to Donald Duck.

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Now, when creators use the first generation of Mickey Mouse to create, they need to avoid elements such as clothing and other elements whose copyright has not expired. If Disney stops lobbying Congress, it will only be a matter of time before other Mickey Mouses enter the public domain, and they will eventually usher in their 95th Year.

Not just all kinds of Mickey Mouse, but Donald Duck (2029), Goofy (2027), "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (2032), "Pinocchio" (2035), "Dumbo" (2036), "Bambi" (2037) and other animations and characters will also slowly become available to the public.

On the other hand, unlike copyright, which has an expiration date, a trademark can last indefinitely.

In 2007, Disney made the Mickey Mouse image from "Steamboat Willie" into a logo, making it protected by trademark law and appearing in the opening credits of movies such as "Frozen" and "Full House."

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However, copyright law and trademark law work differently. The former protects creative works so that others cannot copy and adapt them without authorization. The latter protects the brand and prevents consumer confusion, but does not suppress the creation itself.

Therefore, although Mickey Mouse has trademark protection, as long as the creator does not make money in the name of Disney, does not mislead the audience that the work is from official Disney, and does not open a store such as "Disney Mickey Mouse Burger", then there should not be a big problem.

Disney's repeated delays in copyright have made the outside world resentful for a long time, and some people have already tested the law on the verge of breaking the law in advance.

MSCHF, a New York creative team that has repeatedly offended Nike and spoofed Musk and Zuckerberg, has carefully planned a three-year performance art. It will release concept tokens in 2021, and buyers can redeem their Mickey Mouse in 2024. Figure.

MSCHF did not dare to call Mickey Mouse by his first name, so he used "Famous Mouse" to cover it up, which was full of irony. Everyone knows the name of this mouse.

The three-year period has arrived. Congratulations to the original Mickey Mouse for his freedom!

The most powerful legal department on the surface, from falling to the bottom to being executed no matter how far away it is

Disney has been reluctant to let go of Mickey Mouse because the IP business is indeed very profitable.

As of December 2023, among the 50 most profitable IPs in the world in 2023, Mickey Mouse and his friends ranked second after Pokémon, with total IP revenue of US$52.2 billion, including retail, box office, CD and Video tapes and other channels.

▲ "Fantasia" in 1940. Picture from: wikipedia

The reason why Disney has the title of "the most powerful legal department on earth" is not only its influence on copyright law, but also its prestige accumulated through decades of IP rights protection.

There's nothing gentle and cute about the way Disney protects the characters it brings to life.

The New York Times said so. It is reasonable to argue with suspected infringing movies or theme parks. After all, these are Disney's main businesses and cannot be interfered with. However, it not only protects rights in these areas, but once it touches the wrong scale, it will be punished no matter how far away it is.

In 1989, Disney sued the Oscars on the grounds that the unauthorized use of Snow White's image in the opening song and dance not only allegedly vilified Snow White, but also may have caused the audience to misunderstand Disney's involvement.

Oscar initially refused to apologize, but relented after Disney filed a lawsuit.

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In the same year, Disney also asked three kindergartens in Florida to remove murals of Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Goofy and other characters, which hurt the young hearts of some children.

Universal Pictures, which is competing with Disney for the theme park business, "took advantage of the situation" and rushed to the kindergarten to paint its cartoon characters in place.

The tough style of Disney's legal department has spawned many jokes. The most damaging one is that if you are surviving on a desert island, the fastest way to rescue is to draw a Mickey Mouse on the beach and have Disney fly a plane to pick you up to file a lawsuit.

In fact, Disney's number of copyright lawsuits has declined in recent years, according to federal court documents. At the same time, it has stepped up its crackdown on online piracy, but generally does not resort to court, but directly sends deletion notices.

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Both trends are related to the boom in creator culture on the Internet.

In 2011, Disney actively lobbied Congress to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), but was ultimately unsuccessful.

This bill cracks down on piracy very severely. Ordinary people who publish copyrighted works will be held accountable, and websites may even be shut down because of infringing links. This is a disaster for platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

The tech giants stood up to Disney and prevailed.

Times have changed. Although entertainment giants have deep roots, in the past 10 years, it has been Internet technology companies that have changed the rules of the game. A large number of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok creators have also brought a new atmosphere to the Internet economy. Piracy is wrong, but copyright protection cannot be excessive.

▲ Mickey Mouse design sketch in early 1928. Picture from: wikipedia

Back when Disney was founded, the birth of Mickey Mouse was inseparable from copyright. At that time, it was Disney itself who was cheated, and Mickey Mouse was their savior after they hit rock bottom.

In 1927, Disney created the cartoon character "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" for Universal Pictures, and successively released 26 short films, which received good market response.

But when Walt Disney proposed a budget increase, Universal Pictures managers in turn demanded a 20% reduction, claiming that Oswald's copyright belonged to Universal and that he had bribed most of Disney's animators, so Walt Disney had no right to make demands. .

▲ Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Picture from: Disney

Walt Disney had lost all his money and was left with only one animator and two assistants. Only then did he realize that the copyright could not fall into the hands of others. He refused the "overlord clause" and learned from the experience and started from scratch, with similar painting styles but different species. Mickey Mouse was born and became popular all over the world.

After learning a painful lesson, Disney's copyright management has been quite strict since then.

The regret was finally filled. In 2006, Disney CEO Bob Iger reached a deal with Universal and obtained the rights to Oswald and the original 26 short episodes. The Oswald in these short films entered the public domain in January 2023, arriving at the same end as the original Mickey Mouse.

Creation is never an isolated island

Nowadays, Disney, with its big tree and deep roots, reacts much calmer than when it lost Oswald.

Because it knows very well that since 1928, the image of Mickey Mouse has been tightly tied to Disney, and it will not change even if the copyright expires.

When we see a mouse with white gloves and round ears, our brains automatically think of Disney.

The loss of the first generation of Mickey Mouse this time may not bring much loss to Disney, but it is of great significance to the creators.

The copyright law that sets a time limit is to protect creation and to promote creation.

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Within a period of time when the work is released, the creator should receive material rewards to stimulate the enthusiasm of more creators, but the work cannot be monopolized forever and be privately owned by the creator.

When works of art lose copyright protection, they become the public property of all mankind.

Disney actually stood on the shoulders of its predecessors to become the greatest dream machine since the 20th century.

Mickey Mouse borrowed from Chaplin, and "The Lion King" borrowed from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," not to mention that it adapted literary stories such as Grimm's Fairy Tales, Aesop's Fables, Andersen's Fairy Tales, and One Thousand and One Nights to the screen.

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We are already familiar with these stories, but Disney has given them pictures and sounds based on the blueprints, adapted them more in line with the current times, and told their own modern version of fairy tales, which have been engraved in the minds of several generations, replacing the old ones. Text.

When Disney spent a lot of time and energy to portray Mickey Mouse as innocent and cute, winning the hearts of men, women, and children, and then establishing a business empire consisting of movies, peripherals, and theme parks, these images naturally cannot be destroyed by others.

In the 1971 satirical cartoon "Sky Pirates," Mickey Mouse was portrayed by cynical underground cartoonists as a very "un-Disney" person who was secretly involved in sex, drugs, and politics.

Disney was furious and defended its rights. The dispute lasted for 10 years, from the local court to the Supreme Court. The defendant could not afford the nearly $200,000 in compensation and did not want to go to jail. In the end, the two parties settled, and the cartoonist promised not to disturb Mickey Mouse in the future.

Opponents argue that copyright is used to stifle artistic expression. One of the cartoonists’ defense was typical of the hippies of that era:

My purpose in drawing Mickey Mouse is not to undermine Disney's products, but to address the American mythology that Disney has implanted in our consciousness.

The cartoonist's behavior is not difficult to understand, and Disney's pursuit is also reasonable.

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The 95-year-old Mickey Mouse has never been just a cute creature in Disneyland. It does not exist in isolation and cannot influence everyone's opinions. Some people regard it as a childhood memory, while others regard it as consumerism and cultural hegemony. Mickey Mouse As a carrier to satirize reality, borrow someone else’s wine glass to pour your own wine.

This is still the case when the copyright is in hand. Disney should be mentally prepared in the future. It is impossible not to be pranked. There are many lessons learned from the past.

After the novel "The Great Gatsby" entered the public domain, Gatsby was written as a vampire in a second published novel. Bambi, whose copyright has expired in the original novel, has also been transformed into a killing machine in a horror movie, which is very different from the sweet image in the 1942 Disney movie.

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No matter what, Mickey Mouse will become a source of inspiration for future generations like the stories that have been sung for thousands of years.

Starting from January 1st, more different voices can be openly put on the stage. This world-famous animated character will be given more arcs that even Disney can't think of.

The first generation of Mickey Mouse was finally shared by mankind, and it was a good start for the new year. From then on, the world was not free.

It is as sharp as autumn frost, and can ward off evil disasters. Work email: [email protected]

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