The Great Gatsby will lose its copyright and go into the public domain in January 2021 and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises also will fall into the public domain in January 2022.
On January 1, 2024, society will see the expiration of the copyright for the short film, Steamboat Willie — and with the expiration of the copyright of the short film means there are new questions about the film’s star, Mickey Mouse. The copyrights to works featuring the characters of Superman, Batman, Disney’s Snow White, and early Looney Tunes characters will all fall into the public domain between 2031 and 2035.
The expiration of copyrights for works featuring characters like Mickey Mouse and Batman will raise tricky new legal questions.
For example, if someone wants to sell a CD or DVD or Blu-Ray or stream a copy of Steamboat Willie, it will be in the public domain and there is nothing that Disney will be able to do in 2024 in order to stop anyone who wants to do that.
However, Mickey Mouse as a character, as a logo, as a symbol for sales, is a registered trademark of Disney. There are also later versions of the character, also. This means that there will be a variety of ways to sell a product, such as in a brown, paper wrapper to something more fancy, with screenshots of the short film.
There has never been an intersection of copyright and trademark law before so that characters who are featured in works that fall into the public domain are still registered in future works and are still registered as trademarks. Chances are that the use of screenshots on advertising for sales of the film may indeed be trademark use of the character, though there are arguments that the screenshots are in the public domain, also.
It will be an argument that will be litigated over once 2024 comes and sales of public domain films start.
Here is a lightly-edited transcript of the video blog:
A few people have asked me about Mickey mouse and some upcoming copyright expirations.
So let’s start here: January 1st, 2024, we see the expiration, for the copyright to “Steamboat Willie,” which is Disney’s first short feature with Mickey Mouse. What exactly does that mean for Disney? We are still not 100% sure. First off, Mickey mouse has been redesigned since then. There is a different design of the character. Also, there is not just the copyright in the short film, but there’s also the trademark in the character. So I think we can probably all agree that if you’re going to be selling “Steamboat Willie” on January 2nd, 2024 in a DVD or blu-ray or offering it for a video download, you’re going to be perfectly fine doing so. And you can say that you are selling “Steamboat Willie,” but if you start putting pictures of Mickey Mouse around it, there might be some issues.
And that’s the intersection here of Copyright Law and Trademark Law that we really haven’t seen yet and we’ve really haven’t had in the history of the planet, let alone our country. These mega-characters that continue to last for a long time and therefore cross boundaries between Copyright Law and Trademark Law are new.
The copyright in the actual work will be expired. You want to sell copies of it, knock yourself out. It’ll be in the public domain. You want to make something new based on it, knock yourself out. It will be in the public domain.
But then the question is going to be how do you create something to sell that and say that these mega-characters are in the work. That intersection is probably going to be litigated once 2024 rolls around and people start selling copies of “Steamboat Willie”, creating other versions of “Steamboat Willie.”
The future is going to be wide open in a few years, but the copyright will certainly be ending and we will see works – classic works – coming into the public domain.