Everyday Intellectual Property: Mickey Mouse and the History of Intellectual Property in Film – Trademark

When animators Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, the first cartoon to feature Mickey Mouse, neither probably had a clue that their anthropomorphic, mischievous mouse would become a global entertainment icon and a perennial symbol of the impermanence of copyright protection. . But the impact of intellectual property (IP) in entertainment extends far beyond even the sagas of copyright law.

Nearly a century later, the impending copyright expiration of “Willie” illustrates one of the notable intellectual property protection issues facing the film industry. Yet the inevitability of copyright expiration is just one of many fascinating intellectual property stories that can be told – along with trademarks, licensing, brand valuation and many more. who play crucial roles in how we make, monetize and enjoy movies.

Mickey Mouse – full steam ahead into the public domain?

In the late 1920s, copyright law in the United States offered little protection compared to current laws: it only allowed a maximum term of 42 years (28 to begin with, with the possibility of renewal for an additional 14 years). Over the decades, this was extended, notably by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. This new law, which the Walt Disney Co. directly lobbied for, provided protection for works for remuneration and anonymous and pseudo- anonymous that lasted for years. 120 years after creation or 95 years after first publication, whichever comes first.

The inexorable march of time means that Steamboat-era Mickey will still fall into the public domain in October 2024, despite the 1998 extension. But copyright is very complex and specificity carries a lot of weight. Older depictions of the Mickey Mouse character will be available for other creators to distribute – but only these particular cartoons. Mickey Mouse’s 1920s appearance is a registered trademark of the Disney Company, and actively used trademarks do not expire as long as renewal payments are made. So if someone uses the Mickey Mouse image taken from public domain content in a way that conflicts with Disney’s many trademarks, they could quickly find themselves at odds with the conglomerate’s legal department.


The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 has been highly controversial, with many calling it nothing more than a “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”. Critics of the extension argue that it stifles creativity and innovation, while proponents counter that longer-lasting creators’ rights allow them to earn a fair profit from their works.

In other words, the name and likeness of Mickey Mouse from the “Steamboat” era may only be used by Disney to indicate the origin of goods and services. While anyone will be able to modify, reproduce and distribute older Mickey Mouse cartoons when their copyrights expire, creators will not be free to generate new material using the character’s trademark elements. owned by Disney. And, crucially, Disney retains the hallmarks of Mickey’s various incarnations and iterative designs over the years.

It is very likely that Disney will take an aggressive stance in the early years of its public domain status in order to enforce its trademark rights and set a favorable precedent.

“Batgirl” disappears into the night

Disney knows precisely which characters it wants to use and how to use them. In contrast, Warner Bros. Discovery seems to be having a serious identity crisis with the DC Comics characters for which it owns the intellectual property rights.

Despite box office successes with films centering on both well-known (“Wonder Woman,” “The Batman”) and obscure (“Shazam”) characters, Warner Bros. Discovery recently made some decisions that had industry professionals, media and fans scratching their heads. A recent example of this was the media conglomerate’s sudden decision to shelve its completed “Batgirl” film altogether – to recoup some of the film’s alleged $70 million budget as a tax deduction. Some industry sources claimed the film was canceled due to poor test screenings, but others claimed the result was unrelated to quality at all and only stemmed from Warner’s financial concerns. . Still, it would appear that the move is part of a broader correction in the company’s trajectory aimed at steering the production company away from simultaneous releases of mid- to high-budget films in theaters and on streaming services.

In a vacuum, this decision is banal. Through his ownership of DC Comics and DC Entertainment, Warner can do whatever he wants with media featuring Batman, Batgirl, Superman, and countless other characters, all of which are trademarks of DC. What makes the cancellation of the “Batgirl” movie odd is that it came at a time when DC remains committed to releasing the much more expensive budget “The Flash” in 2023. Granted, the titular character has arguably greater IP value than Batgirl, as Warner expects “The Flash” will be a box office draw. But lead actor Ezra Miller has spent more time generating startling scandals in recent years than promoting the DC brand. It is the stark contrast between Warner’s approaches to the two situations that is shocking. A piece of intellectual property, “The Flash”, is currently damaging the brand due to its star controversies. The other, “Batgirl,” is, at worst, a bad movie, but it’s the one that’s locked away in a vault despite still being a valuable IP.

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We may never know the real reasoning behind Warner’s decision to cancel the “Batgirl” movie. It can be any combination of the factors mentioned above or something else entirely. What we do know is that the turn of events is disappointing for fans of the DC character.

As unfazed as movie studios and television networks often seem, it will be interesting to see what long-term effects these decisions will have on Warner and DC’s brand identities and, ultimately, their values.

Tarantino’s NFT Legal Battle

The role of IP in branding is not limited to the mainstream of blockbuster franchises and cartoon characters. An upcoming legal battle between acclaimed screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and his longtime distributor Miramax highlights this business reality.

In late 2021, Tarantino announced plans to auction digitized pages of the “Pulp Fiction” screenplay that were never filmed as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Miramax quickly sued the filmmaker for copyright infringement and breach of contract. Tarantino’s lawyers say the director’s rights to the script allow him to profit from assets directly tied to it. Miramax said its own copyright for the film supersedes the copyright for Tarantino’s screenplay.

With the case not going to trial until February 28, 2023, intellectual property professionals and moviegoers have plenty of time to speculate on how the case will evolve. Probably the most important debate will focus on how the 1993 licensing agreement between Tarantino and Miramax, which was made long before NFTs existed, affects Tarantino’s creation of NFTs using the script. “Interactive media” is listed as one of the rights reserved to Tarantino, so much depends on whether the director’s legal team can argue that NFTs can be classified under this umbrella.

Indie Horror: “All Rights Reserved”

The independent cinematic sphere (which Tarantino helped popularize with early films like “Pulp Fiction”) is still going strong. This enduring success is partly attributable to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, which have used their massive platforms to present complex and thought-provoking films. Prime examples include Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”, and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”, all of which have been nominated or won numerous awards.

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The independent film industry, while relatively easy to break into, is notoriously difficult to conquer. Competition is fierce while resources, promotion and distribution are limited. Those who succeed are most often true passionate filmmakers who are determined to create art despite the challenges.

That said, if a funding deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The fly in the ointment of streaming distribution was the subject of a roundtable in July 2022 with prominent independent film producers. They said that when streaming services offer to fund, produce, or distribute independent films, the promised budgets (including producer and director fees) are often the proverbial offer they can’t refuse. However, in the fine print there may be clauses reserving most or all of the intellectual property rights to the streaming services. John Lesher, producer of Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Birdman’ (2015 Best Picture Oscar winner), noted that this is a huge problem in European film markets, although it also hurts producers and directors in the United States.

Protect Expression

All kinds of intellectual property rights help protect films that have charmed, delighted, shocked and moved people around the world. Whether you are an international production company or a burgeoning author, Dennemeyer’s experts can help you design and implement the most effective strategy to protect your artistic projects.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.

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