The mouse that roared shook up Congress, but he served authors well by extending their copyright protection to long after their gone. But, after a heroic battle, Mickey Mouse is now free. Mickey Mouse, at least his earliest rendition, is now in the public domain, free from “protection” by copyright law.
The term of older copyrights used to be 75 years. In 1998, the Walt Disney Company, amid mounting concern, pushed to have copyrights extended. They were fearful of losing exclusive rights to their most iconic symbol – Mickey Mouse. Mickey, at least his earliest iteration in Steamboat Willie, was released in a cartoon short in 1928. Add 75 to 1928 and you get 2003. In other words, in just five years, Mickey Mouse would be in the public domain. Anyone could use the mouse as they wanted, within certain limitations. Think of the 2022 movie, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey. That's what happens when copyrights expire. Disney must have been mortified by the prospect of such things happening to their beloved mouse.
The result was Disney pushed for a copyright extension in 1998. Congress obliged. It might not have been moved by the descendants of A. A. Milne, but a major corporation has clout. They had a proponent in Congress, then Congressman Sonny Bono. Sonny and Mickey. It doesn't have quite the caché of Sonny and Cher, but they too made music together. The result was the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, sometimes referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” For works published before 1977, the term was extended from 75 to 95 years. At the time, that provided Mickey with 25 more years of copyright protection. For works published after 1977, it is for the life of the author plus 70 years (or 95 years for corporate creations).
For authors, this was a benefit, as they were pulled along for the ride with Mickey Mouse. Well, maybe not so much a benefit for authors but for their great-grandchildren. The term for post-1977 works used to be for life plus “only” 50 years, but now it's for life plus 70. But for these pre-1997 works, it's simply 95 years instead of 75.
Fast forward. It has now been 25 years plus one since 1998. Steamboat Willie is now 96 years old. The end of Mickey's copyright term, raised from five to 25 remaining years in 1998, has finally arrived. On January 1, 2024, Mickey's copyright came to an end. Steamboat Willie has now sailed off into the public domain. The original motivation for the extension act is no longer served. No one had the stomach to try to extend it again, and besides which, Sonny Bono's political party is not so fond of Disney any more. Mickey is free. And, so is every other work published in 1928. This probably wasn't the greatest year for literary works, but among those whose copyrights expired on January 1 are All Quiet on the Western Front, The Threepenny Opera, Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and Virginia Woolf's Orlando.
Music, in the form of sheet music, from 1928 also came into the public domain this year. However, sound recordings have a 100 year copyright, so only records from 1923 were freed from copyright protection. If you would like to copy a scratchy 78 rpm recording of Al Jolson singing Coal Black Mammy, released in 1923, you are now free to do so.
If you are planning on copying Mickey's image for your works, here is a word of caution. This end of copyright applies only to the Steamboat Willie image of Mickey Mouse. His appearance changed over the years as he aged gracefully. Do not use a later created version of Mickey. If you do, you can expect Disney to come down on your head like a lead anchor.