Disney, under siege by Republican lawmakers, may immediately lose its copyright for Mickey Mouse if a law slashing the duration of ownership is passed.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Tuesday proposed legislation that limits copyright protection to 56 years. According to the Copyright Clause Restoration Act of 2022, the law would retroactively apply to existing copyrights.
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The move follows Florida lawmakers last month stripping Disney of special privileges of self-government that allowed it to independently oversee its sprawling theme park area. The feud started when the company vowed to push for repeal of the Parental Rights in Education Law, which bars discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in grades K-3 and allows parents to sue school districts if they think there’s been a violation.
Disney has suspended political donations in Florida. After an about-face that saw the company publicly oppose the legislation under pressure from employees after initially staying silent, Gov. Ron DeSantis placed Disney front and center in a culture war against what he called “woke corporations.”
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Hawley, employing DeSantis’ playbook, said in a statement, “Thanks to special copyright protections from Congress, woke corporations like Disney have earned billions while increasingly pandering to woke activists.”
Hawley’s mention of “special copyright protections” refers to Disney’s major role influencing the evolution of copyright law. Mickey Mouse was first introduced with the 1928 release of Steamboat Willie. At the time, Disney was afforded 56 years of protection for the character.
But with the copyright set to expire in 1984, Disney lobbied for reform and secured the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976. This allowed ownership of works by corporations for 75 years. In 1998, Disney was again able to delay the entry of Mickey Mouse into the public domain with the adoption of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. The law extended protection of copyrights by corporations for 95 years from their original publication, pushing the expiration of Disney’s copyright for Steamboat Willie to 2024.
Several Republican lawmakers have said that they won’t support an extension of copyright protections for Disney if a bill is introduced. In a letter to chief executive Bob Chapek, Jim Banks (R-In.) denounced the company for capitulating “to far-left activists through hypocritical, woke corporate actions” with its opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Act.
“Given Disney’s continued work with a Communist Chinese regime that does not respect human rights or U.S. intellectual property and given your desire to influence young children with sexual material inappropriate for their age, I will not support further extensions applicable to your copyrights, which should become public domain,” reads the letter.
But even if Disney’s copyright for Steamboat Willie expires, only the original design of Mickey Mouse will hit the public domain. There have been several iterations of the character over the past century. The copyright for sorcerer Mickey, for example, which appeared in the 1940 movie Fantasia, expires in 2036.
Trademarks, which cover words and symbols used to identify products, may also serve to protect Disney’s business interests in controlling the commercial use of its characters.
The proposal brought by Hawley is unlikely to pass given the Democratic majority in the Senate. Even so, Republican lawmakers’ appetite to attack Disney to attract conservative voters places the company in the increasingly untenable position of trying to play both sides of the aisle.
So far, Disney has stayed silent on the dissolution of its Reedy Creek Improvement District in Florida. It didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.