First Mickey and Minnie Mouse copyright ends, legal battle soars

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Nearly a century after the big-screen debut, Mickey Mouse enters the public domain on  Monday, unleashing the floodgates to potential remakes, spin-offs, adaptations and subsequent legal battles with Disney.

Under US law, the copyright on “Steamboat Willie” – a short, black-and-white 1928 animation that first introduced audiences to the playful rodent expires after 95 years, on January 1.

However, intellectual property lawyers and Disney executives had in the past lobbied to change the law to prolong US copyright terms but these efforts were futile.

This implies that anyone is now free to copy, reuse and adapt “Steamboat Willie” and “Plane Crazy” (another 1928 Disney animation) and the early versions of the characters that appear within them.

Meanwhile, in a statement, Disney said it would “continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.” 

Additionally, while the copyright has expired, the trademark remains.

Copyrights stops things from being copied without permission, such as a book, film or music, nobody can copy it or reproduce it without permission. They expire after a set time.

Trademarks guard the source of a work, preventing anyone else from making a product that could mislead consumers into thinking it came from the original author. It is illegal for anyone else to display the mark. They can be renewed indefinitely.

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