By ANDREW DALTON
AP Entertainment Writer
Burbank – M-I-C-K-E-Y will soon belong to you and me.
With several asterisks, qualification and caveats, Mickey Mouse in his earliest form will be the leader of the band of characters, films and books that will become public domain as the year turns to 2024.
In a moment many close observers thought might never come, at least one version of the quintessential piece of intellectual property and perhaps the most iconic character in American pop culture will be free from Disney`s copyright as his first screen release, the 1928 short “Steamboat Willie,“ featuring both Mickey and Minnie Mouse, becomes available for public use.
“This is it. This is Mickey Mouse. This is exciting because it’s kind of symbolic,“ said Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, who writes an annual Jan. 1 column for “Public Domain Day.” “I kind of feel like the pipe on the steamboat, like expelling smoke. It’s so exciting.“
U.S. law allows a copyright to be held for 95 years after Congress expanded it several times during Mickey`s life.
“It’s sometimes derisively referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” Jenkins said. “That’s oversimplified because it wasn’t just Disney that was pushing for term extension. It was a whole group of copyright holders whose works were set to go into the public domain soon, who benefited greatly from the 20 years of extra protection.”
“Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products,“ a Disney spokesperson said in a statement to The Associated Press. “That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires.“
Current artists and creators will be able to make use of Mickey, but with major limits. It is only the more mischievous, rat-like, non-speaking boat captain in “Steamboat Willie” that has become public.
“More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise,” Disney`s statement said.
Not every feature or personality trait a character displays is necessarily copyrightable, however, and courts could be busy in the coming years determining what`s inside and outside Disney`s ownership.
“We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright,” the company said.
Disney still solidly and separately holds a trademark on Mickey as a corporate mascot and brand identifier, and the law forbids using the character deceptively to fool consumers into thinking a product is from the original creator. Anyone starting a film company or a theme park will not be free to make mouse ears their logo.
Disney`s statement said it “will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”
“Steamboat Willie,“ directed by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks and among the first cartoons to have sound synced with its visuals, was actually the third cartoon featuring Mickey and Minnie the men made, but the first to be released. It features a more menacing Mickey captaining a boat and making musical instruments out of other animals.
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