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First Disney designs enter the public domain: what you can and can’t use from the cartoon mouse drawings

Martín Vicuña - Alessandri Abogados

January 1, 2024 will mark a milestone in the history of Disney and intellectual property in general. The first designs of Mickey Mouse and Minnie, created nearly 100 years ago, enter the public domain. This event is not the first of its kind, but it is one of great magnitude.

Under the U.S. Copyright Act, which grants monopoly protection to intellectual works, these rights expire either 70 years after the author’s death or 95 years after publication of the work.

Walt Disney’s first drawings of mice appeared publicly in 1928 with a black-and-white caricature of Mickey Mouse, sailing a boat and whistling a ditty, in the musical film Steamboat Willie and the silent film Plane Crazy. The first drawing of Mickey had an elongated snout, small round eyes and was drawn in black and white. Over time the figure changed: he grew ears, acquired colors and his eyes became longer.

Uses and limitations

As of January 1, these figures will be in the public domain. This means that anyone can use the original design of the character without the need to pay the relevant rights or request the corresponding permissions and will be able to share, adapt or redraw these caricatures. We could see Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie as a symbol of a cheese brand or Minnie from the same short film in educational graphic designs. Only those figures as they appear in the short film may be used and not the later adaptations, which are still protected, such as his pants with their characteristic color and shape. The use must be in black and white, avoiding the characteristic colors -or any other aspects- that may be associated with the Disney brand. Any use that suggests an official association with Disney or damages its brand may be subject to legal action. You should not mislead consumers by suggesting that they are Disney products or that they are endorsed by Disney. In addition, use of these designs in contexts that differ markedly from previous Disney applications should be avoided. Still, a world of possibilities opens up for artists, educators and entrepreneurs.

Similar cases: Winnie the Pooh and the Nutcracker

This is not the first time an iconic character has entered the public domain. Winnie the Pooh, created by A.A. Milne in 1926, is already part of the public domain, which allowed the adaptation of the story to Winnie the Pooh: Honey and Blood; likewise The Simpsons in its Season 17 "Simpsons Christmas Stories" celebrated the entry of the story of the Nutcracker, created by E.T.A Hoffman and Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, to the public domain by dedicating a story under its theme. Similar luck experienced the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle with his character Sherlock Holmes; F. Scott Fitzgerald with "The Great Gatsby", J.M. Barrie with Peter Pan; Beethoven and Mozart with their classics; Bram Stoker with Dracula and Nosferatu, and different works by H.P. Lovecraft experienced a "second life" when they entered the public domain being able to be reimagined and reproduced outside their main axis. Each of these cases represents a moment in which art and culture are open to be reused and reinvented, thus enriching the global cultural heritage.

Comparative legislation: what’s happening in Chile

This transition to the public domain is not only a significant event in legal terms, but also an exciting time for creativity and innovation. We will see how the first Mickey Mouse inspires new works, products and even companies, demonstrating the dynamism and evolution of culture and law. In the case of our country, Law 17,336 establishes that the protection of the intellectual rights of authors with respect to their creations extends for 70 years from the date of death of the author. The Chilean law has allowed us to celebrate the entry into the common cultural heritage of several emblematic works. For example, "Altazor" by Vicente Huidobro, entered the public domain in 2019. In the future, we will be able to celebrate Pablo Neruda with "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair" in 2043 and Nicanor Parra with "Poems and Antipoems" only in 2088.

The entry of the first Mickey Mouse into the public domain is a reminder of the balance between protecting the rights of creators and fostering collective creativity. It is a historic moment that celebrates both the legacy of Walt Disney and the limitless future of human creativity.

Author: Martin Vicuña, Associate, Alessandri Abogados 

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