The Importance of Trademark Protection When Copyrighted Works Enter the Public Domain

  • Content Protection
  • Trademark Clearance
The Importance of Trademark Protection When Copyrighted Works Enter the Public Domain

The copyright for one of the first depictions of Mickey Mouse will expire in 2024. So, why aren’t Disney concerned?

Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, was the first story to feature beloved Disney character Mickey Mouse. Mickey stars as “a mischievous deckhand on a riverboat that is under the command of the tyrannical Captain Pete”[1], and contains almost no dialogue. In fact, it wasn’t until a year later in the 1929 film “The Karnival Kid”, that Mickey Mouse spoke for the first time.

Steamboat Willie. Copyright © Walt Disney Animation Studios

Interestingly, Mickey started as a character known as “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”. Following a dispute between Walt Disney and his business partner working at Universal, Disney lost the rights to the character – and thus Mickey Mouse was born. Looking at the clip of Oswald below, you can clearly see elements of the character in Mickey’s modern design.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Copyright © Walt Disney Animation Studios

A background on copyright protections in the US

All works that were published in the US prior to 1923 are now in the public domain, as is any work created by individuals in an official capacity for the federal government. Copyright protection is usually granted for 95 years to works published between 1923 and 1977. Copyright rules changed in 1978, meaning that any works published in that year or later generally have protection continuing for 70 years after the author passes away[2]. In essence, this means contemporary works will be protected into the late 21st century, and many into the early 22nd century.

Different rules are applied to works that are produced on behalf of someone else, published anonymously, or released under a pseudonym. Copyright protection for these works last 95 years, either from publication or creation – whichever is shorter. If and when the author’s name is shared with the US Copyright Office, the usual term of 70 years following the author’s death then takes effect[3].

Why Mickey Mouse is still protected

The copyright on Steamboat Willie is set to expire in January 2024. So, will other content creators, brands, and consumers be able to use Mickey Mouse in their own works? The short answer is no.

Disney still own the copyright on more recent works featuring the character and, most importantly, have protected his name, likeness, and associated imagery by registering trademarks. While copyright protection eventually expires, trademarks can be retained in perpetuity – provided that the mark continues to be in use and doesn’t fall victim to genericide.

The importance of trademarks in protecting invaluable assets

An incomplete trademark portfolio means potential for consumer confusion, trademark opposition, loss of revenue, and limitations on how you can harness your IP in the future.

An intelligent trademarks strategy is therefore needed, from screening and search reports to clear your proposed marks relating to works that are entering public domain, to watching services to monitor your marks once registered.

As part of Corsearch’s end-to-end trademark clearance and monitoring offering, we provide a watching solution for trademarks relating to expiring copyrights. We also provide a full suite of Entertainment Availability and Copyright search offerings which include a Full US Copyright Search, enabling you to learn everything about the original copyright, registration, renewals, and all derivative works for the copyrighted work. 

The need for a strong content enforcement program

While registered trademarks provide long term protection, it is still important to maintain a strong content enforcement program.

Copyright infringement continues to plague global businesses, threatening the livelihoods of content creators and innovators. To protect your content’s value and prevent loss of revenue, it is key to find and remove copyright infringement at the source. This will enable you to reduce the supply of pirated material and retain the exclusivity of your digital assets.

By partnering with Corsearch to clean search results and combat pirate websites, you can maximize the organic search performance of your protected assets and ensure that consumers only find legitimate content. We provide a fast, accurate takedown service with incomparable response times on major search engines. Corsearch customers also benefit from expert enforcement across P2P services, streaming websites, cyberlockers, social media, app stores, paid search & advertising, and UGC platforms.

A comprehensive IP establishment and protection solution

A comprehensive solution will enable your business to prevent copyright-theft and piracy and ensure the longevity of your invaluable assets.

We should add that this approach is not exclusive to animation and motion picture content either – it can also be applied to books and other copyrighted works that are due to enter the public domain.

Corsearch supports thousands of global brands, law firms, and IP professionals to simplify their work and maximize their time with intelligent Trademark and Content Protection solutions.

Talk to one of our experts to learn how Corsearch can help you establish and protect your IP with confidence.

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*The above-mentioned brands and characters are noted for factual reporting purposes only, the listing of the brands does not imply any relationship with Corsearch or its related entities.