Happy Public Domain Day 2024! – The Public Domain Review

peter.suber's bookmarks 2024-01-02


"For anyone vaguely tuned in to the machinations of copyright law, this Public Domain Day (the day at the start of each year on which works enter the public domain) is an extra special one, for it finally sees the appearance of a certain mouse. That's right... Mickey is free! At least the particular iteration of Mickey that first graced our screens in Disney's 1928 film Steamboat Willie. And, at least in the United States, which sees works from 1928 enter the public domain today.


To appreciate the monumental nature of this one needs to understand a little about Disney Corporation's relationship to, and perverse effect on, copyright law in the United States — and so how symbolic Mickey has become in the fight to preserve the public domain. The story starts (or at least takes a significant turn) in 1998 with the passing of the Copyright Term Extension Act, which basically did what it says on the tin: extended copyrights for many thousands of works which otherwise would have entered the US public domain, including Steamboat Willie (and also Plane Crazy). While Disney wasn’t the only lobbyist involved, it was certainly one of the most prominent and its involvement earned the legislation the derisory moniker of “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”.


The effect of this Act (and previous extending Acts, also involving Disney) has been devastating to the enlargement of the US public domain, locking up an enormous number of works for many decades, but… all things must pass, and so too the copyright on Steamboat Willie. So what does this mean? In a simple sense it means one can use the film as one wishes (in the US at least). And this relates also to the characters of Mickey and Minnie which star in the film, but with two important caveats: i) it’s only these particular versions of Minnie and Mickey (e.g. long arms, gloveless), later iterations are still under copyright; and ii) Disney still has the trademark, so you can’t reuse in a way which implies an affiliation with the company. For a more in-depth look at the issues involved here (including why aspects of the later Mickey iterations might also be fine to reuse), we highly recommend this great post by Jennifer Jenkins from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain and also this Twitter thread by Cory Doctorow...."



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Date tagged:

01/02/2024, 09:16

Date published:

01/02/2024, 04:16