January 1, 2019 wasn’t just the start of a new year. It was also the start of a new period in the creative history of mankind. After a 20-year delay, copyrighted works from 1923 are now in public domain, with everyone free to adapt and remix them without fear of prosecution. A key moment in copyright and trademark history, these now pubic domain works could usher in a new corpus of literary, musical, and artistic works that could now go public rather than stay underground or in the dark corners of the Web. But it could also challenge existing laws that may have remained untouched since the 20s, causing a bit of chaos in the very same industry.
It’s almost laughable that Mickey Mouse is partly at the center of this all. The 1976 Copyright Act practically mandated that copyrighted works should be made available in public domain after 75 years. That was still in effect in 1998 when works from 1922 became public domain. But in 1999, the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” was added to tack on another 20 years to that expiry date.
While the law was named after one of the lawmakers that sponsored a similar bill, it was a dirty secret that one of the major lobbyists of that law was Walt Disney, who was moving to stop the copyright for Steamboat Willie and, therefore, the first incarnation of Mickey Mouse, from expiring in 2004.
Unless another extension happens, that design for Mickey Mouse become public domain on 2024. Of course, it only applies to that first Mickey Mouse and not later designs. And Disney still holds the trademark for the iconic mouse, which is a totally different ballpark.
Public Domain Day is almost a breath of relief in an age where creativity has never been easier but also never more stifled by litigation and paywalls. That said, these new streams of content this year and every year henceforth will also force lawmakers and companies to revisit old copyright and trademark laws in ways that were never considered 20 years ago. That is, unless they move to protect Mickey all over again.