A Copyright helps protect the intellectual property of its creator, but only for so long. Older works such as a Tale of Two Cities, the Odyssey or even Tarzan can now be freely copied with impunity. These works have entered what is called the “public domain.” On January 1, 2024, Mickey Mouse is set to enter the public domain. Copyright protection of the most well-known mouse will expire. Like the countdown to destruction by the Death Star, Disney seems powerless to stop the use of Mickey Mouse by the masses – sans hefty licensing fees. However, those who place their faith in this seeming inevitability will be disturbed.
Even the Death Star had a two meter wide thermal exhaust port. What will save Disney’s precious mouse? The force … of trademark rights. The specific animations of Steamboat Willie and The Barn Dance might be freely copied, but Mickey as an icon of the Disney Company will be defended as the protected trademark of Disney. And Disney will not be the first to use this tactic; Tarzan was also trademarked, thereby preventing the creation of new works using Tarzan – though the original stories are all public domain.
A Trademark is used to protect the name, terms, symbols, slogans and images used to identify the source of goods and/or services on the market. Stated another way, trademarks allow a consumer to distinguish one company’s work from another’s. The mere silhouette of Mickey Mouse is now undeniably associated with Disney. Disney will most likely be able to successfully protect its famous mouse from misuse. However, the fight will not stop with Mickey. Many other characters, including Minnie Mouse, Pluto, and even Winnie the Pooh will lose the same copyright protections and will be left seeking shelter through trademark.
Can Disney maintain the same level or protection using trademark law instead of copyright? Copyrights are meant to protect literary and artistic works; while trademarks are meant protect against confusion of brand.
Choosing the right kinds of protections for your business’s intellectual property is critical. Where one protection fails, another form may provide shelter. The Vethan Law Firm, P.C. assists our clients make these choices every day. Contact us for more information.