Will Disney lose Mickey Mouse under new Copyright Bill?

On May 10, 2022, Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced a Bill in the Senate aiming to alter current copyright laws. The Copyright Clause Restoration Act of 2022 specifically targets how long a copyright can exist, and therefore how long a published work can be protected. Currently, for works published in the United States after January 1, 1978, copyright protections last for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years. Under the new Act proposed by Senator Hawley, new copyrights will be allowed to exist for 28 years, with an option to renew for an additional 28 years- a maximum total of 56 years. Additionally, this Act will apply retroactively to copyrights owned by entities with market capitalizations over $150 billion, including Disney, Apple, and Netflix.

How does this affect Disney and Mickey Mouse? Mickey Mouse was first introduced by Disney in 1928 in their short film Steamboat Willie. At the time, under the Copyright Act of 1909, Mickey was protected for 56 years. In later years, Disney lobbied for copyright law reform that allowed them to twice extend their protections over Mickey, and he is currently protected until 2024. If Senator Hawley’s proposed Bill is passed, Mickey Mouse will move into public domain and Disney will no longer have exclusive use rights over the beloved character.

Hawley claims that this new legislation is meant to “crack down on copyright monopolies to ensure that they only last long enough to encourage innovation.” However, it is likely that this Act is an attempt by Republicans to attack Disney after the company spoke up against the Parental Rights in Education Bill- a reason completely unrelated to copyright policy. The Parental Rights in Education Bill, which has been colloquially termed the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill was signed by Florida Governor Republican Ron DeSantis and it bans public school teachers in Florida from instructing students about sexual orientation or gender identity.

Luckily for Disney, since this Bill has less to do with copyright policy and more to do with the Republican favored “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, it is highly unlikely that the Bill will pass the Democrat majority Senate. Additionally, in the unlikely chance that this Bill does get passed by the Senate, only the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse would enter the public domain, not the vibrant and colorful Mickey most of us are familiar with today. Another likely consequence of the Bill being passed, as mentioned by Stanford Law School intellectual property expert Paul Goldstein, is that the Bill will be challenged in Court as a blatantly unconstitutional taking of property without compensation.

In conclusion, Disney and Mickey Mouse are unlikely to be affected by this proposed legislation. Disney will likely continue to have exclusive use rights over Mickey Mouse until the expiration of their copyright in 2024.

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