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Is Mickey Mouse's Copyright Doomed?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 09, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the Disney classic Steamboat Willie, Mickey plays a variety of musical "instruments" -- a goat for a grinder's organ, a duck for bagpipes, a bull's teeth for a xylophone -- to orchestrate the folk song Turkey in the Straw.

It's always been funny, but it is ironic now because the song fell into the public domain more than a century ago. It looks like the film is finally headed for the same fate.

Times Changed

The motion picture industry, which has repeatedly lobbied Congress to extend copyright protections, isn't fighting for it this time. Industry experts say times have changed.

Until the 1970s, copyright protection lasted for 56 years. In 1976, Congress retroactively extended it to 75 years, and then to 95 years in 1998.

As a result, any work published in 1923 will fall out of protection on Jan. 1, 2019. Steamboat Willie, created in 1928, will fall out in 2024.

"While copyright term has been a longstanding topic of conversation in policy circles, we are not aware of any legislative proposals to address the issue," the Motion Picture Association of America told Ars Technica.

"Public Would Fight"

Daniel Nazer, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the public would fight another extension of the copyright term. He said Hollywood and other special interests have not been lobbying for it.

"This is an election year, so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and op-eds," he said.

Mickey Mouse, in the meantime, will outlive the protection of his famous movie even if Congress doesn't extend the copyright. His brand is trademarked.

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