SB_February_2_2024

Page 7 The Sun Bay Paper February 2, 2024 On January 1, 2024, Mickey Mouse, or a variant thereof, entered the public domain in the United States after nearly a century of copyright protection. This milestone encompasses iconic early fi lms featuring the beloved mouse, such as Steamboat Willie and the silent rendition of Plane Crazy, both originating in 1928. It’s noteworthy that only works from this particular year became part of the public domain in the US on New Year’s Day 2024. The entry of Mickey Mouse into the public domain is a signifi cant event in the ongoing evolution of intellectual property. What distinguishes this occurrence from previous entries, like Sherlock Holmes and Winnie the Pooh, is not merely Mickey’s fame as a copyrighted character. Other renowned characters have transitioned into the public domain without generating the same level of attention. The heightened interest in Mickey’s entry into the public domain can be attributed to the intricate 95-year-old love triangle involving Mickey, Disney, and the Public Domain—a complex relationship echoing the dynamics of a Disney narrative. On one hand, Disney advocated for legislation extending the copyright term to 95 years, colloquially dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” This extension, criticized by scholars for its economic regressiveness and detrimental impact on cultural preservation, was instrumentalized by Disney, though the company’s role in the legislative process may be overstated. On the other hand, Disney is adept at building upon the public domain, as demonstrated by works like Frozen, The Lion King, and Fantasia, all drawing inspiration from public domain sources. The public domain encompasses not only expired or nonexistent copyrights but also uncopyrightable elements within contemporary works. Notably, Mickey Mouse himself is rooted in public domain infl uences, with his character traits mirroring those of silent fi lm stars like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. The love triangle emerges as Disney symbolizes both the extension of copyright terms and the importance of a robust public domain. The expiration of copyright over Mickey Mouse in 2024 becomes a symbolically charged moment, ushering in a potential evolution or resolution of the complex relationship between Mickey, Disney, and the public domain. With the entry of Steamboat Willie and its characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, into the public domain, creative opportunities abound. Courts have clarifi ed that when a story enters the public domain, elements like characters covered by expired copyrights become fair game for subsequent authors. This opens the door for diverse reinterpretations and adaptations. creators are free to share, adapt, or remix the material, sparking imaginative projects. For instance, one could envision crafting a “Steamboat Willie: the Climate Change Edition,” with Mickey’s boat navigating a hurricane fl ood. Alternatively, a feminist remake could place Minnie Mouse the lead, or one might reimagine Mickey and Minnie championing animal welfare, addressing the uncomfortable portrayal of animals as musical instruments in the original. The possibilities are vast, limited only by creativity. However, certain precautions are necessary to navigate the legal landscape. Use the original 1928 versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse without incorporating copyrightable elements from later iterations. BUT...Not every later iteration will be copyrightable, as explained below. Avoid creating confusion with consumers regarding Disney’s involvement, adhering to trademark laws. Clearly indicate your work’s source and include a prominent disclaimer stating that your creation is not produced, endorsed, licensed, or approved by Disney. In 2024, Mickey Mouse fi nally joined the ranks of other well-known characters entering the public domain, including Winnie the Pooh, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Robin Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. The availability of Mickey and Minnie 1.0, as seen in Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy, is noteworthy. Even though these characters reappear in later copyrighted works, copyright law stipulates that Disney only owns the newly added material in subsequent works, while the underlying content from 1928 remains freely accessible. This principle was exemplifi ed by the unsuccessful attempts of the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. to artifi cially extend the expired copyright over Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters. A court affi rmed that all story elements in public domain works are “free for public use,” allowing the public to freely utilize such elements. Mickey Mouse’s appearance has undergone changes over time, evolving from a vaguely rat-like form to a more neotenous look. His eyes, initially portrayed as large white ovals with pupils in Plane Crazy and smaller black dots in Steamboat Willie, both versions of which are public domain in 2024, refl ect these alterations. In 1929, Mickey began wearing gloves, possibly to enhance visibility of his hands against his body. Subsequent transformations, such as colorization and the overall appearance of later Mickeys like Fantasia Mickey, remain under copyright. This shift in copyright status provides creators with the opportunity to explore and utilize the early versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, while respecting the delineation between public domain and copyrighted material in later iterations. As of 2024, these classic characters off er a wealth of creative possibilities for new works, adaptations, and reinterpretations. In summary, while some legal nuances exist, the entry of Mickey and Minie into the public domain invites new creative endeavors. Original Mickey and Minnie Enter Public Domain!

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