Can Copyrights Expire? Disney to Lose Copyright over Mickey Mouse in 2024

Can Copyrights Expire? Disney to Lose Copyright over Mickey Mouse in 2024

After 95 years, Disney might lose exclusive rights to its mascot, Mickey Mouse. The cheerful face which has become the emblem of Disney will enter the public domain, after which it can be used freely.

What does this all mean for Disney? Is there anything that can be done to salvage this ownership? And exactly how much freedom do we really have to use Mickey without infringing any copyrights?

Copyright Basics in Malaysia

Copyright protection is provided under the Copyright Act 1987 in Malaysia. Unlike trademarks, designs and patents, copyrights do not have to be specifically registered because it exists automatically. As soon as the original work is created, it belongs to the creator of the work by default. Generally, these protect creative works made by authors, producers, photographers, musicians, songwriters, artists, and sculptors.

Is My Copyright Recognized Overseas?

Malaysia is a signatory of the Berne Convention and therefore, creative works made in Malaysia would be recognized by each member country of the Berne Convention.

Below is a map that shows the countries which have signed and ratified one or more multilateral international copyright treaties. For a comprehensive list, click here.

Map of parties to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.
Source: Wikipedia

From a local perspective, this means that works created in Malaysia are eligible for copyright not only in Malaysia but also in the member countries of the Berne Convention around the world, including the European Union, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Korea, and more. Expansion of creative works in foreign countries is thus possible for Malaysian copyright owners at little or no cost!

How long does copyright protection last?

Copyright terms are different from country to country. In Malaysia, copyright subsists during the life of the creator plus continues 50 additional years after death. This means that the relatives or appointed beneficiary of the deceased author, artist or designer can benefit from the copyright for a further 50 years.

Copyright protection duration for some other notable countries:

  1. Countries in the European Union – Life plus 70 years.
  2. Australia – Life + 70 years [Life + 50 years (death before 1955)]
  3. Singapore – Life + 70 years
  4. Brunei – Life plus 50 years.
  5. Thailand – Life + 50 years.
  6. Philippines – Life + 50 years
  7. Japan – Life + 70 years.
  8. United Kingdom – Life + 70 years
  9. Canada – Life plus 50 years.
  10. United States – Life + 70 years (works published since 1978 or unpublished works)

What Happens When a Copyright Expires?

Trademarks and copyrights are different. Trademarks are not bound by time, and as long as you continue paying to keep it, you can technically keep it indefinitely. As you already read above, copyright, on the other hand, can and will expire. Copyright in literary, musical or artistic works is released into the public domain once the duration of the copyright expires. Well, what happens when something goes in the public domain?

Let’s take Sherlock Holmes as an example of expired copyright. As such, many adaptations of the character have been done freely and legally, without infringement of copyrights. You could in theory make your own version of this Arthur Conan Doyle’s story. This has led to some not so successful spinoffs of the character, including such as Gnomeo and Juliet sequel Sherlock Gnomes and Will Ferrell ‘comedy’ Holmes and Watson.

Similarly, the character Winnie the Pooh has also entered the public domain. However, it is important to note that elements of the character are still trademarked, such as the name, logo, and his red shirt. Only the character itself is no longer copyrighted. This means that yes, people are freely allowed to make their adaptations of the character, such as a gory horror imagining of the bear, but still having to be careful of where that fine line lies.

What else is in the public domain? If you’re curious, some other famous characters that no longer has a copyright owner are:

  1. Robin Hood
  2. Zorro
  3. Dracula
  4. Frankenstein’s Monster
  5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  6. King Kong
  7. Alice (from Alice in Wonderland)
  8. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
  9. Hercules
  10. White Rabbit (from Alice in Wonderland)
  11. Wizard Of Oz

What happens when Disney loses exclusive rights to Mickey Mouse in 2024?

Mickey, which is the cheerful face of Disney, is set to end after 95 years and enter the public domain. The big news here is that Disney might lose exclusive rights to their long-time mascot, plus many more of their iconic characters in 2024.

If you paid attention so far, you would assume that when Mickey Mouse goes into public domain, it will open up doors for creators to take apart the character in bizarre and hopefully interesting directions, without needing to pay any premiums to Disney, right?


Yes, and no.
This is where the catch comes in.


Some of us may be “mature” enough to remember watching this early version of Mickey Mouse.
Source: Disney Wiki.

To start, specific works of Mickey, such as films or books, may indeed go out of copyright, but Disney would still have a near-monopoly on the iconic character. Disney has already foreseen this expiration coming and have been doing everything they can to protect Mickey from intellectual property poachers.

Firstly, Disney is still trying to find any way they can to extend their copyright, by navigating through the very complex US Intellectual Property system.

Secondly, only the Mickey character in its first appearance in 1928′s Steamboat Willie will no longer be Disney’s property. So, in future, anyone can use only the original Steamboat Willie version of the character, not any other of their newer Mickey adaptations, without catching a copyright claim from Disney. That original version is missing some of the recognizable characteristics associated with Mickey today. The mouse’s white gloves, and any iterations that include any kind of colour, will not be a part of the version entering the public domain. Thus, if new creators want to repurpose the character, they will have to work around the restrictions that come with it.

Thirdly, Mickey Mouse is protected by a fortress called a trademark, which is far more powerful in most situations and which does not expire unless it is abandoned. In other words, Disney will have trademarks on Mickey forever, and if the company feels that the new user of the Mickey Mouse IP is stepping on Disney’s toes, you bet there will be a lawsuit coming their way.

Versions of Mickey Mouse throughout the years.
Source: Heritage Auctions.

So, What’s the Big Fuss?

Disney is a giant conglomerate that has all the financial means necessary to protect their intellectual property. Trademark is their ultimate trump card to maintain ownership over Mickey Mouse, regardless of copyright ownership. Ultimately, losing the copyright actually doesn’t allow as much freedom as the term “public domain” might imply.

From this case, we learn that copyrights do come with a lot of protective rights, but trademark protection is the IP right that holds true power. If you can afford to upkeep your trademark forever, in which Disney definitely has the money to do so, you will be able to own something forever.

Yes, there could be more grey area when it comes to violating IP laws when Mickey in Steamboat Willie does go into public domain. However, as soon as a person’s adaptation of the Mickey character evokes any form of “customer confusion” (meaning customers can’t be sure at first glance if the work was made by a random person or Disney), then that will be classified as trademark violation, a tool could Disney use to protect its character. Of course, this argument is bound to a sure-win, because Mickey Mouse has always been associated with Disney by everyone, and the “customer confusion” argument will forever be in favour of Disney.

Both copyright and trademark protection are really important, and Intellect is an expert in intellectual property matters across many countries, including Malaysia. If you are looking for more information about copyright registration and trademarks, speak to our agents today.