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Disney   /   Disney Animation   /   Editorials/Opinions

Understanding Copyright: It’s Easier Than You Think!

September 10, 2023Jordan Simmons

Copyright – the protection of intellectual property which allows its creator/owner exclusive rights to copy, adapt, perform (you get it) their creative works. Copyright doesn’t physically exist; it’s a concept which automatically protects your creative work. Despite popular belief, you don’t have to register for copyright. That book sitting unpublished in your drafts is copyrighted and is your property. You are free to do what you want with it. Copyright can be passed down, traded, licensed or sold, but unlike other property, copyright has an expiry date.


You are mistaken, insatiable thief of my writings, who think a poet can be made for the mere expense which copying, and a cheap volume cost. The applause of the world is not acquired for six or even ten sesterces. Seek out for this purpose verses treasured up, and unpublished efforts, known only to one person, and which the father himself of the virgin sheet, that has not been worn and scrubbed by bushy chins, keeps sealed up in his desk.

Epigrams by Martial (Roman Poet – lamenting his frustration of others copying his poems.)

Historians have dated the concept of copyright to at least the 6th Century, a time which included one of the earliest recorded copyright conflicts: The Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (Battle of the Book). But copyright, as we know it today, didn’t exist until the 1800s. By this time, many countries had established their own copyright terms although the length was short, ranging between 10 and 30 years (sometimes with an option to renew). However, there was no international copyright and American publishers flourished with their pirated editions of popular British authors. A frustration felt not just by Charles Dickens and his peers, but their American comrades whose work was being ignored in favour of pirated books. After all, why pay those greedy American writers royalties for their hard work when you can freely copy a British book and not pay anyone at all?

This problem was eventually solved with the invention of multiple international copyright agreements, famously the 1886 Bern Convention which saw 10 countries gather in Switzerland for an international assembly to discuss the protection of literary and artistic works. Here, they established minimum requirements for copyright, including the length at which copyright lasts (Life plus 50 years after the author dies).

Since 1886, the Bern Convention rules have been revised 6 times (in 1908; 1914; 1928; 1948; 1967 and 1971) and although only 10 states met in 1886, 181 states have since ratified the rules, granting equal automatic copyright to all authors regardless of nationality. So, when you see Senators like Josh Hawley, who is all teeth and no brains, hark on about stripping “woke corporations like Disney” of their copyright by reducing the length to 28 years, just know that he knows he cannot do that and is just saying it to appease his fanbase. Reducing copyright terms to anything lower than 50 years is illegal under international law.

Copyright is essentially a deal between an author and (almost) every country on the planet. You have exclusive access to a product you create and are free to do with it as you please. Then, you die and the timer until copyright expiration begins. Once it expires, it enters the Public Domain.

The length of time copyright lasts after the author’s death varies from country to country but most have it set to around 50-70 years after death. Currently, Mexico leads the way with the longest copyright terms: Life + 100 years.

Here’s a clearer example using the USA’s copyright terms:

  • 2000: John Smith publishes his first book: “The Witch.”
  • 2000-2030: John Smith enjoys the exclusive rights to The Witch and all his following books.
  • 2030: John Smith dies and the copyright is passed on to someone else.
  • 2030-2100: The owners of the copyright enjoy 70-year exclusivity.
  • January 1st 2101: The copyright to all of John Smith’s work expires and enters the Public Domain.

Smith’s books will have already entered the Public Domain in countries with shorter terms.

But what if John Smith lives to the ripe old age of 120? Well, even if you are still grasping on like Mitch McConnell you’ll be sad to hear that there are rules in place to stop Centenarians and Super-Centenarians from profiting from a copyright that should have expired decades earlier. Copyright can expire 90 years after first publication or 120 years after creation, whichever comes first. No one has lived long enough to see their own work expire in such a way.

For movies it works the same way except the director, cinematographer, writer and composer are considered “co-authors” even if a studio owns the copyright. The Life + rule still stands but the countdown to expiry doesn’t start until the final “co-author” dies. There is also the copyright reversal rule which allows IP to return to their original creators after a certain amount of time. See this CNN Entertainment article for more information on that.

The Book List: The fake titles Charles Dickens used to decorate his library  | The Independent | The Independent
Charles Dickens was instrumental in the creation of a US-UK international copyright agreement.

But why does copyright expire? How come you can pass a house down for generations but not copyright? Writing a book or making a film is very different from owning land, furniture or a house. Your personal possessions will probably never impact my life in any way, but your book might.

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Art and innovation is an integral part of Human culture and always has been. We read our kids the stories we loved when we were younger; we re-watch the same movies over and over; we share and take part in cultural traditions, and we enjoy Disney movies like Snow White and Cinderella, both derivative works from Public Domain stories. The Public Domain guarantees that art, patents and other innovations are remembered and shared for future generations.

The Steamboat Willie Conundrum

This is where things get a little complicated. In 1976, the United States passed an act that gave everything published between 1923 and 1977 a 75-year copyright unless it was already in the Public Domain. Another extension in 1998 saw this extended to 95 years. Disney undoubtedly pushed this act to stop Steamboat Willie from entering the Public Domain in 2003, causing the act to be lovingly nicknamed “the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” Extending this already unique copyright rule to 95 years gave Disney exclusive access to Steamboat Willie until 2024 – which is right around the corner. Now, we get into it.

Will Steamboat Willie enter the Public Domain?

Suffice it to say Disney hasn’t had the best few years politically. With everything going on they’re in no position to lobby for another copyright extension and with 2024 only 4 months away, it’s probably too late to start lobbying for another one.

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Steamboat Willie will enter the Public Domain on January 1st 2024 in the United States.

MSCHF's "Famous Mouse" tokens.
Art Collective: MSCHFX has designed a Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse statue. Since the short is still under copyright protection, the statue design has not been released and patrons can only purchase a special coin which will be used to exchange for the statue in 2024.

Can Disney Renew the Copyright?

No. There is no longer such a thing as copyright renewal in the United States.

There was some confusion recently with the release of The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse: Steamboat Silly which included Steamboat Mickey. Some online theorised that this was Disney trying to hold onto the copyright, but that makes no sense. Steamboat Silly doesn’t affect the copyright of the original Steamboat Willie in any way. That being said, the slightly updated character design used in the new animation is protected under the copyright of the Steamboat Silly cartoon. If you think that Disney has designed the new Steamboat Mickey to be different but as close to the original as possible, so they can try and catch out people who are looking to use the Steamboat Mickey design… to be honest that is a fair assumption.

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Will I be able to use Mickey Mouse?

Yes and No.

Mickey Mouse is not copyrighted because you cannot copyright characters. However, Mickey is protected because Steamboat Willie is copyrighted and once it expires everything within Steamboat Willie is free to use – that’s if trademarks didn’t exist. Unlike copyrights, trademarks can last forever provided it’s still being used by their owner. Mickey Mouse is trademarked by Disney and is still in use so they will retain the rights to make money from him. They can also use their legal power to halt any infringement on their trademark. You’ll be free to use his Steamboat Willie design, but calling him Mickey Mouse will probably be off-limits.

The Oswald Connection.

Many early Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts are Public Domain because they didn’t have their copyrights renewed in the 50s.

A lot of people are frightened of the concept of Mickey Mouse entering the Public Domain, but what if I told you that he’s not even the first Disney character to enter the Public Domain? Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has been in the Public Domain since the 1950s and pretty much nothing has been done with him because Disney owns the trademark (after acquiring it from NBCUniversal in 2006).

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Hope this helped and it wasn’t too overwhelming. If you have further questions you can ask us on Twitter or check out the sites I used in my research.


Jordan Simmons

Jordan is a British-Trinbagonian film & TV journalist currently based in the UK (not London). You can see his articles on various websites, including The Disinsider and The Cinema Spot. He is not the Las Vegas Raiders player of the same name, but Jordan fully supports him despite knowing nothing about the NFL. You can find Jordan on Instagram @ig_jordansimmons


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    Understanding Copyright: It’s Easier Than You Think!

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