D-Day for Disney

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25 January, 2019

With 2019 well under way, some people may have already taken the opportunity to enjoy the many literary and artistic works that have lost their copyright protection as of 1 January, otherwise known in the legal world as 'domain day'.

Typically, UK copyright protection lasts for 70 years after the creator's death. Once copyright protection has expired, the work will fall into the public domain and can be used and copied freely without fear of infringing on another's intellectual property rights or the need to pay royalty. The law is different in other jurisdictions, however, and in countries like USA works are published not in relation to the publisher's death, but from the date they were created. Each year sees a variety of inspirational and classic works fall into the public domain, and the next few years will be no different with The Great Gatsby, the films of Charlie Chaplin and the books of Agatha Christie all approaching the end of their copyright protection in different jurisdictions.

Most famous of all, 2024 will see Disney's very first Mickey Mouse cartoon 'Steamboat Willie' pass into the public domain in the USA. Interestingly, this is the third time that Mickey has been set to lose copyright protection but, due to a series of legislative amendments in the US spearheaded by Disney themselves, the duration of protection has been extended. The most recent amendment saw the extension of copyright protection to 95 years in 1998. As the 91st year has just passed, the clock for Mickey is now ticking once again.

There is some good news for Disney though, as their works still have the benefit of other intellectual property protection, despite their copyrights coming into the public domain. The novels about Tarzan, for example, were first published in 1916 so are now in the public domain in various jurisdictions. However, the creator Edgar Rice Burrows was once step ahead of the game and obtained a trademark on the name 'Tarzan'. As a result, he was successful in preventing the creation and circulation of Tarzan by rivals. In light of this, Disney have no doubt already protected Mickey Mouse in a similar fashion. A trademark on Mickey Mouse will protect Disney's world famous brand as a whole, rather than Mickey Mouse as a literary or artistic work, so Mickey might be safe after all.

Interestingly, there is one piece of Disney lore that will never lose copyright and, fittingly, never grow up. The copyright on the play version of Peter Pan by JM Barrie was due to expire in 1987 but, thanks to amendments to the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act, the copyright protection on Peter Pan was allowed to run indefinitely. As a result, any royalties are now paid to the trustees of Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Forbes regularly advises on all aspects of trade mark and copyright protection. Contact us at John Pickervance, or 03332071134 to discuss any issues further.

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