How Mickey Mouse ruined the public domain

How Mickey Mouse ruined the public domain

Back in the twenties, our copyright system used to work like it’s supposed to; an artist who created a new piece of work could claim exclusive rights to it for 56 years, long enough to make a profit for pretty much their entire lifetime. After, that the work entered the public domain giving everyone the right to copy share and use it to create works of their own.

Remixing the works of the past is an essential way in which we create a new culture, and this same process bought us so many of your favourite characters. Like Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, Hercules, Pinocchio, Dr Douglas, Mr Hyde, Captain Nemo, Tarzan, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Moby dick and many, many more.

All of them were created by artists long ago and are now in the public domain. Free for us to use to tell our own stories; you can make Tarzan play football, or make sleeping beauty a cyborg…whatever you want because these characters now belong to all of us. It’s a little something I like to call the circle of rights.

So you’re saying that anything light touches will one day be mine?

Not anymore!

In 1998, mickey mouse was about to enter the public domain. But to stop this, Disney and other companies lobbied Congress to increase copyright by a decade. So now they could gain ownership of him and other public characters. Now all the characters that would belong to us belong to them.

“This problem is far more serious than just cartoons. Because of these laws, nothing has entered the public domain in years! In fact, no published work will enter the public domain until 2019. Books, songs, movies and even scientific articles are stuck in legal limbo. Until the last fifty years, every generation in history has had free and legal access to the creativity of the past. They could learn from it and build on it!”

– Professor James Boyle, Co-founder, Center for the study of the public domain, Duke University.

And no one understood the irony of that better than Walt Disney. Tons of Disney characters have been taken directly from the public domain! Even the breakthrough Mickey cartoon 2013 steamboat Willy is based on a Buster Keaton movie from 1928!


1 Association of research libraries, 2015
2 Lessig Lawrence, Free Culture, Ch. 1
3 Washington Post, Oct 25th, 2013
4 As taken from his interview by Adam Conover for Tru TV
5 List of Disney feature films, Wikipedia