Republicans took away Disney’s special status in Florida. Now they’re gunning for Mickey himself

It all started with a mouse, and now that big-eared rodent is in the middle of a grass war between conservatives and one of the world’s most influential media companies.

Mickey Mouse has been the symbol of Walt Disney Co. since his debut 94 years ago in a black-and-white short film that launched the company into a powerhouse for animation.

But in 2024, the copyright protection for Mickey Mouse will cease to apply, which means that the old version of the mouse from the animation “Steamboat Willie” will become public property, making it free for artists, creators and ordinary fans to use on their own creatively. work.

A group of Republican lawmakers has vowed to oppose any attempt to extend the protection – which has already been extended twice since the original expiration date in 1984 – as a way of punishing Disney, which some conservatives have thrown out as a major cultural force with a progressive agenda has recently been described as dangerous.

On Tuesday, Senator Josh Hawley, (R-Mo.) went one step further, says he plans to introduce legislation to deprive Disney of copyright protection this year. “No more auditions for awake companies,” Hawley, also a constitutional lawyer, wrote on Twitter.

Disney officials have declined to comment.

The fight focuses on the importance of Mickey Mouse – financial and sentimental – in the midst of Disney’s growing range of intellectual properties, which include existing characters from the Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar series. Today’s Disney watchdog might ask: Who still cares about Mickey Mouse? Is the character who launched a global media brand now a supporting role for Yoda, R2-D2, Elsa, Stitch, Buzz Lightyear and Iron Man?

“Is the Mickey Mouse brand as significant today as it was 50 years ago? No,” said Daniel Binns, brand expert and CEO of North America at Interbrand brand consulting firm. “It’s still one of the most recognizable symbols in the world.”

Product license and retail sales generated $ 5.2 billion for Disney last year, but the company does not break out how much of it comes solely from sales of Mickey Mouse products. Wall Street analysts covering Disney say there is not enough public information available to estimate that figure.

Even before the Republican campaign against Disney, the entertainment giant had prepared for its copyright to expire, say copyright experts. This means that Disney, often called “the House of Mouse”, has had decades to isolate itself from a moment when its most iconic character can enter public property.

The story of how Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse when he rode a train – first naming him Mortimer until Disney’s wife rejected the name – is a story known to most die-hard Disney fans, says David Koenig, who has written several books about the company.

In 2024, the copyright protection for Mickey Mouse will expire, which means that the original, old-fashioned version of the mouse from the animation “Steamboat Willie” is public property.

(Getty Images)

It can not be said about all the other characters he created later.

Mickey’s head, represented by the three round circles, is known throughout the world as a symbol of Disney’s parks and movies.

The mouse’s appeal extended beyond small children. Johnny Ramone, guitarist for the punk rock group Ramones, wore a Mickey Mouse shirt on stage, as did rocker Axl Rose in the 1970s and 80s. The Mickey Mouse watch, first manufactured in 1933, was worn by John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Grace Kelly and astronauts on Apollo 7 and Apollo 10.

“It remains the iconic link to Walt Disney and is the glue that tied everything together,” Koenig said of the mouse.

Among park visitors who visited Disneyland on a recent weekday afternoon, adults who grew up at Disney before branching out into superhero action movies and galactic battle dramas expressed the greatest devotion to Mickey Mouse. Younger visitors: Not so much.

“He’s an icon,” said Ryan Nickerson, 41, who walked out of the park with his girlfriend Kristina Hallila, 36, both San Francisco cardholders. Outdoor speakers near the entrance blew up “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Nickerson wore a multicolored short-sleeved shirt with dozens of Mickey Mouse faces. His true devotion to the mouse was hidden just below: He loosened the top button of the sweater to reveal a tattoo on the chest of Mickey Mouse flying with a biplane.

“Nostalgia is what Mickey represents,” Nickerson said.

Several meters away, in the shadow of the monorail track, 8-year-old Ethan Buchan from Hayward put on Mickey Mouse ears, with an R2-D2 design, while playing with Lego on the cement. His mother, Rachel, grew up watching Mickey Mouse, but her son prefers episodes of “The Mandalorian,” a Star Wars spinoff.

Which character does the boy like best? “They are all equal to me,” he said with a shrug.

The original copyright for Mickey Mouse would expire in 1984 but has been extended twice by Congress on behalf of Disney and other media companies. The latest extension came through the Copyright Term Extension Act 1998, known to many as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to Disney’s heavy lobbying in support of the bill.

From 1987 to 1990 – around the time the legislation was voted on – the Disney Political Action Committee donated $ 146,519 to federal candidates, while Disney employees gave $ 474,083 to candidates, plus an additional $ 133,382 to political parties and other PACs, according to an analysis by 1991. by The Times.

But the law was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by publishers, libertarians and others who called the bill “corporate welfare” that allowed copyright holders to continue to earn on their work while keeping it out of the hands of the public. The Supreme Court upheld the law.

No legislation has been proposed to extend copyright a third time, and copyright experts and legislators say it is unlikely that any legislators will want to lead that fight, given the resistance and rage it created in the 1990s. Other companies’ copyrighted characters would also expire, sending more notable characters to the public domain.

Disney critics say the company continues to have influence over copyright law, pointing out that Suzanne Wilson was recently named chief lawyers and associated United States Copyright Office copyright register. She previously oversaw intellectual property rights and interactive and media law functions for Walt Disney Co.

Legal experts say the debate over copyright protection is controversial because the only version of Mickey Mouse that expires is the 1928 black and white depicted in “Steamboat Willie.” Copyright protection remains for later versions of Mickey Mouse, the more commercially recognized who wears white gloves, has larger ears, distinct eyes and a dog named Pluto, according to experts.

Crucially, Disney still has a trademark patent on Mickey Mouse, which does not expire. Although copyright prevents other companies from replicating the Mickey Mouse image, a trademark ensures that other companies may not use the Mickey Mouse image in a way that may indicate that their products are manufactured by Disney.

For example, if copyright expires, a YouTube creator could use Mickey Mouse from 1928 in his own animated video montage, without repercussions. However, trademark protection would not allow anyone to sell goods with that, or any, version of the mouse in a way that might indicate that the product is a Disney product.

A toddler is watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon with Steamboat Willie.

A young man watching a cartoon “Steamboat Willie” on an Ipad.

(Matthew Pasant / Getty Images)

The most common penalty for trademark infringement is an injunction or discontinuation letter urging the user to stop using the trademarked material. But courts can also impose substantial financial penalties on offenders.

Trademark protection is enough to ensure that most companies will think twice before using Mickey’s image to sell products, say legal experts.

“If you put a Mickey Mouse picture on a bathroom towel or plush doll, even if the copyright expires, if people think the product comes from Disney, then you’re in branding trouble,” says Robert Merges, a law professor at UC Berkeley.

It is possible that Disney is protecting Mickey in another subtle way: Several years ago, the company began inserting excerpts from the cartoon “Steamboat Willie” at the opening logo of many modern Disney animations, including “Tangled”, “Frozen” and “Moana. ”

It’s a move that could establish the 1928 version of Mickey as a modern Disney logo or trademark, which would remain protected even if copyright expires, says Victoria Schwartz, who teaches intellectual property, copyright and entertainment law at Pepperdine University.

“They have clearly been preparing for this opportunity for many years,” she said.

Republicans’ focus on copyright is part of a larger fight the Republican Party has waged against Disney, which was sparked earlier this spring over Florida’s parenting law in education, legislation known by critics as “Don’t Say Gay” – layers.

Since then, conservatives have portrayed Disney – a company not long ago loved by the Republican Party – as an amoral cultural force that uses its corporate power and cultural influence to spread ideologies they do not support.

After first keeping quiet about Florida’s bills, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the legislation and angered Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other GOP leaders, who have condemned what they call Disney’s. “wake up ideology.” (DeSanti’s Political Action Committee received more than $ 100,000 in campaign grants from Disney 2019 and 2021.)

DeSantis, a likely challenger to the GOP’s presidential candidate, responded by pressuring the state legislature to repeal a law that allowed Disney to act as a private government over its Florida properties.

Other Republican lawmakers have jumped on the anti-Disney bandwagon with a threat to end Mickey Mouse’s copyright.

In a letter dated April 7, 17 GOP members of Congress wrote to Chapek saying they would not support any legislation to extend the copyright to Mickey Mouse that expires because of Disney’s “political and sexual agenda”, its opposition to the Florida bill and Disney’s work on China, which included filming parts of the movie “Mulan” in Xinjiang Province.

“Given Disney’s continued work with a Chinese Communist regime that does not respect human rights or US intellectual property rights, and given your desire to influence young children with sexual material that is inappropriate for their age, I will not support further extension. of your copyright “, wrote the author of the letter, US Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.).

The letter accuses Disney of trying to influence children by adding LGBTQIA characters to movies and television programs.

U.S. Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), whose Orange County district includes Disneyland, said he disagreed with the banks ‘and others’ efforts to “link civil rights issues with business issues” and promised to support all legislation to protect Mickey Mouse’s copyright. if it comes to the House of Representatives.

He said that the protection of Mickey Mouse copyright ensures that Disney can continue to benefit from its character in the United States. “What is most important to me is to protect these jobs in the United States,” he said.

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