The birth of Mickey and Disney: One icon’s journey to public ownership
Walt Disney’s 1920s character who became an icon of animated films. Walt Disney and his collaborator Ub Iwerks created a character named Oswald, but it was eventually removed by Universal Pictures, a bitter experience for Disney. After this loss, he decided to create the character Mortimer Mouse, eventually renamed Mickey, to be the new symbol of his work.
Mickey Mouse premiered in November 1928 with the film Steamboat Willie, which used sound as a major element and sparked a new trend in film animation. The character became the foundation for the Walt Disney Studios empire.
The original copyright law, which had been in effect for 56 years, was amended in 1976 to extend copyright protection to 75 years. This was to mean that the Mickey Mouse character would pass into the public domain in 2003. However, a new law in 1998 extended the protection for another 20 years, delaying his “liberation” until 2024.
Even if Mickey Mouse does reach the public domain, trademark protection will still limit its use. For Disney, however, this change does not spell disaster, as the brand has grown since its original days through acquisitions such as Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox. Walt Disney Studios has brought in new characters, extensive revenues and a diversified portfolio exceeding $88 billion for fiscal year 2023. Limiting the length of copyright protection encourages creativity and allows culture to evolve. Allowing space for new generations to create and combine stories is key to continued creativity and innovation.
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