The copyright for the first Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, is scheduled to expire in 2024, which could have major implications both for Hollywood. In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed into law the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA). This bill extended the length of copyrights to encompass the life of the creator plus the next 75 years. Copyright protection for works published before January 1,1978, was increased by 20 years, meaning its copyright was protected to a total of 95 years from its publication date. This followed on from the Copyright act of 1976 that extended the period from 50 years. The year the bill was signed, the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, turned 70 years old. The Walt Disney Company, who had lobbied for a copyright extension throughout most of the 1990s, were considered largely responsible for the new bill. It's derisively nicknamed The Mickey Mouse Bill.
The copyright status of Steamboat Willie, as well as much of Disney’s very early output, has been a topic of legal contention for decades. On January 1, 2019, every book, film, and song published in 1923 will fall out of copyright protection, or at least that is what will happen if further attempts to extend copyright are not put forward - but that probably won't happen. As noted by a spokesperson for the Motion Picture Association of America (via Ars Technica), who themselves had lobbied heavily for copyright extension, "While copyright term has been a longstanding topic of conversation in policy circles, we are not aware of any legislative proposals to address the issue." If that is true, then arguably the most influential piece of animation from the 1920s, the one that Disney still use as the logo for their animation department, could become part of the public domain.
Mickey Mouse essentially created the Disney brand as it endures to this day. He remains the defining icon of the company, even as it has expanded into an all-encompassing entertainment giant. The mouse ears are as much a part of Disney’s iconography as Walt’s signature and Cinderella’s castle. Any creator would want to get their hands on Mickey for their own creative means, which is something Disney has worked hard to stave off for decades. As the only studio in Hollywood that still defines itself so heavily by its founder and his creations, they cannot afford to lose control over the thing that makes them special, not to mention the icon that has made them so much money.
Fortunately, for Disney, while the Steamboat Willie short film may eventually slide into public domain, Mickey Mouse himself won’t. That's because Disney still hold a trademark brand on the character, which is separate from the copyright of Steamboat Willie and, thus, falls under a totally different level of legal jurisdiction in the United States. So, the chances of Steamboat Willie knockoffs appearing in the near future are slim because of those trademarks. Stephen Carlisle of Nova Southeastern University notes the tricky legalities behind both copyright and trademarks:
“The use of trademark law to protect works also subject to copyright is nothing new. The first 21 stories about Tarzan, being first published commencing in 1916, are now all in the public domain. Yet, there are no rival stories about Tarzan being currently written by other authors. This is because heirs of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, had the foresight to obtain a trademark on the name “Tarzan.” Armed with this registration, they have been successful in preventing the distribution of works using the “Tarzan” trademark and variations.”
Disney will probably be relieved by that news, but the wider implications for their decades of lobbying for copyright extension expand way beyond the fate of one mere mouse. There is still plenty of time for Disney to lobby for a new copyright extension bill, and it’s not out of the question. Other studios would be happy to follow suit, especially those who wish to hold onto their history. A potentially endless cycle of protection for copyrighted material could hugely change the discourse around art and pop culture, and that's something Disney and Mickey Mouse would benefit from more than others. What's interesting, though, is that the vast majority of animated films that are closely associated with the Disney brand - Snow White, Cinderella, Aladdin, Tangled, and even Frozen - are all reimaginings of iconic stories that now exist in the public domain.