There have been many changes to the U.S. copyright laws through the years regarding the length of time copyright protection lasts. And it seems like maybe Mickey Mouse might have a lot to do with why the laws keep changing. Click through to find out more!
Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, was the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound. It also happened to be the debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie Mouse. At that time, the 8 minute black and white film was entitled to copyright protection under the 1909 Copyright law which provided for 28 years protection plus a renewal option for 28 more years. That meant that the work was copyright protected for 56 years, set to expire in 1984.
As you can imagine, the Mickey Mouse copyright is a VERY valuable copyright and one that Disney wasn't going to give up very easily. It is said that they started lobbying for a revision to the copyright laws and in 1976 Congress authorized a major overhaul to the Copyright Act. Under the new act, individual copyright owners had their copyright protections extended to their lifetime plus 50 years while corporations that owned copyrights were granted a retroactive extension to their terms. Under these new laws those corporate copyright owners were entitled to protection for 75 years, extended from the 56 years originally.
This meant that the Mickey Mouse copyright would be protected through 2003.
Interestingly, 5 years before the copyright was to expire, Congress changed the copyright duration laws again under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. This is when we came to our current copyright duration laws. Currently, all works created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. For corporate works, the protection lasts for 95 years from the year of first publication, or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever comes first.
This now pushed Mickey's copyright protection to 2023!
It remains to be seen if the copyright will actually terminate in 2023 causing Mickey Mouse to enter the Public Domain. But don't be surprised if we start to hear whispers about changes to the Copyright Act again soon.