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“Burst of activity” around iconic Disney brand in 2024

Specialist intellectual property partner Sarah Coe, predicts that this year, there will be a ‘burst of activity’ in AI image generation and online image sharing. This trend is expected to follow the expiration of copyright protection for Disney’s iconic Mickey Mouse character.

As of the 1st January 2024, anyone is free to copy, share, reuse and adapt the earlier animated versions of the Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse characters that were debuted in the 1928 animations Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy.

Sarah continued by saying that Mickey Mouse remains a symbolic childhood character for many people around the world, and one that is synonymous with Disney, so the company is keen to protect its valuable character for as long as economically possible.

“As the years roll on, each year of his character development will unfold as the layers of copyright protection fall away, but for now the more familiar version of Mickey Mouse, such as one seen in the 1940 film Fantasia, will remain protected,” she said.

“Creators have been quick to take advantage of Disney’s copyright in the earlier versions of its characters expiring. A particular example of a very different form of the classical Mickey Mouse we are used to seeing is the recent release of a horror movie trailer featuring a masked killer dressed as Mickey (featuring the 1928 version of the character).

“As this continues in the digital world the Disney lawyers will be kept busy. Indeed, this next decade may turn out to be an interesting time for Hollywood as other famous films, books, music and characters from 1928 onwards also enter into the public domain in the US.

“AA Milne’s book The House at Pooh Corner is also coming out of copyright protection. The character of Tigger, another popular merchandising figure for Disney, follows the early version released images of Winnie the Pooh that came out of copyright last year. There will be more to follow as the 1920s saw an outburst of creative work post-World War 1 and this can inspire creatives today to reinvent this material for a 21st century audience.”

Sarah says there remain limits on how the public can use these newly emancipated Mickey Mouse images.

“Every opportunity comes with its risks and whilst the copyright protection in these early works is expiring, careful steps should still be taken around the Mickey Mouse trade marks registered by Disney of specific ‘image snapshots’ that still remain in force. These trade marks limit how creatives and members of the public can use the same or closely identical Mickey Mouse images to the protected images bearing in mind that this differs for the UK and the US as there are different copyright laws in both countries.

“Continuously renewing these separate registered trade marks enables Disney to retain its Mickey Mouse logo as a brand identifier. Trade mark registrations do not expire as they can be renewed in each territory indefinitely, every ten years. Disney files trade marks for all its popular merchandising figures so other creators and members of the public are still prohibited from producing merchandise or confusingly similar products that Disney currently sells under its registered logos.

“Copyright is an automatic right that vests in any original human originating work once it is put into a tangible form. However, any image creators who may despair that copyright is unable to satisfactorily protect their work should not underestimate the scope and life length provided by protecting suitable key images taken from their copyright works once they are registered as trade marks, in any chosen territory.

“Trade marks can be registered as images these days (think of the well-known Cola bottle form or the shape of your favourite perfume bottle). Trade marks actively help their owner to safeguard the key named parts of their originally sourced work and can deter third parties from creating the same or any similar work which may mislead consumers into thinking it belongs to the original creator (when it may often be a copycat).

“Our commercial litigation team can only confirm this as it is kept busy with infringement instructions on an ongoing basis.”

A spokesperson for Disney said: “More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.”

The company added that it would “work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorised uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”

If you have a query regarding intellectual property or would like to discuss your own circumstances, please request a consultation


Key contact

Sarah Coe


Bristol and London
Sarah is a Partner in the Corporate Commercial team, specialising in commercial, intellectual property, and technology law. Her work covers the full range of contractual and e-commerce issues relevant to businesses seeking to enter new markets or exploit new technology.
View profile for Sarah Coe >

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