Are images of the early Mickey Mouse still copyrighted?

The LA Times's Joseph Menn has a great, well-researched feature article on the history of the copyright for the image of Mickey Mouse as portrayed in the earliest Disney cartoons -- and the theory that Disney made mistakes early on with its copyright registration, placing images of that specific Mickey (not the Mickey we know today) in the public domain. Prominent legal scholars like Peter Jaszi agree, but who will shell out the millions in legal fees to prove it? After all, the company's already threatened legal action against law-students who publish papers investigating the question!

Brown went searching for flawed formalities -- and found one. It was on the title card at the beginning of a "Steamboat Willie" cartoon that had just been rereleased on a 1993 LaserDisc honoring Mickey's 65th birthday. It said in full:

"Disney Cartoons
A Mickey Mouse
Sound Cartoon
Steamboat Willie
A Walt Disney Comic
By Ub Iwerks
Recorded by Cinephone Powers System
Copyright MCMXXIX."


The authoritative legal treatise "Nimmer on Copyright" says that a copyright is void if multiple names create uncertainty, and courts have agreed. In 1961, a federal judge in Massachusetts cited the "accompanied by" rule in throwing out a copyright claim by newspaper cartoonist Art Moger. Moger's name was included in the title above his panels, but the name of another artist ran inside the boxes.

Disney's rights to young Mickey Mouse may be wrong (Thanks, Xeni!)


  1. meh. US courts will go with Disney if it ever shows up in court. Not that it’s likely to anytime soon.

  2. I have had that very same image (used in your article) of Mickey Mouse tattooed on my leg for over 20 years, it was good to see him in the light of day.

  3. Disney was the driving force behind the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension act (aka the Mickey Mouse Extension Act), which robbed America of millions of works that should be in the public domain. While a handful of these works are preserved, the vast majority of them deteriorate and disappear from neglect, thanks in a large part to people not being able to legally preserve them. Disney has a long and ugly history of abusing copyright law, probably moreso than any other entity in America.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something was organized to free Mickey and kick them in their rubbery corporate nuts?

    More on the Mickey Mouse Extension Act here:

  4. In this specific case, I wonder if expired or unenforceable copyright would have much consequence. Aside from the design and manufacture of toys and such (more on that shortly), it would seem that most uses would fall under “fair use” (although I have a feeling Disney would fight any use).

    That being said, I wonder if commercial use of expired copyrighted material might still be a problem due to trademarking. I’m familiar with copyright basics, but know very little about trademarks. Could trademark protection be used in place of copyright protection in a case like this?

  5. #6: I’ve heard similar arguments about Mickey being protected as a trademark, and that argument would seem to have some solid backing since the Mouse (and his simplified three-circle silhouette) have been used to brand Disney products for decades.

    The bigger argument is over whether Disney cartoons — and by extension most of the history of film — will ever reach public domain. Not if Disney has their way, which is bitterly ironic considering how much of their empire from Snow White on was based on work that was no longer under copyright.

  6. Mostly put here so someone in the know can correct me, but…

    As far as I know, trademark protection is purely to help the consumer know that the product is from a particular company, and make decisions about whether to trust it based on that.

    If your reproduction of another company’s trademark is clearly not meant to imply that your product is produced or endorsed by the company owning the trademark, I think you’re in the clear.

    I am a pedant, but other than that I bear no resemblance to a lawyer.

  7. #7:

    I wonder, then, if the copyright holder is a corporation, how the “lifetime of the creator plus ‘X’ number of years” would affect things, seeing that corporations can last longer than a human. That’s assuming, of course, that the “life of the creator” aspect is still in place.

  8. Now that the Supreme Court has held that parody is protected under the 1st Amendment, I wonder whether Air Pirates Funnies could be republished. Any gazillionaires want to try it?

  9. I propose we build a “officially public domain mickey.” He can’t wear the “trademark” gloves and his “trademark” ears will be squares.

  10. I’d donate a couple bucks to a fund to go after the rights to Mickey and “Happy Birthday”. A few million dollars will win those cases and set some legal precedents.

  11. Biggest question:


    Mickey is SO 20th Centch.

    Take a kid to Disneyland today, and they start crying when some weird giant mouse starts lumbering towards them.

    You have to sit down and explain:

    “No, sweetie, Mickey Mouse is a cartoon character that used to be really popular, like Charlie Brown. No, Charlie Brown. You know, Charlie Brown and Snoopy? No, not Snoop Dog, Snoopy. They were cartoon characters that used to be popular, like Mickey … ah, never mind. Let’s go to Universal Studios and see Spongebob and Spiderman. Or better yet, go play some Mario and Yoshi.

    If Disney wants Mickey to mean anything to the next gen, they need to pump out some killer video games and some funny-as-shite movies featuring the Mouse ASAP.

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