Articles Posted in Public Domain

SteamboatWillie-300x228On January 1, 2024, a significant shift in intellectual property rights occurred with the iconic American pop culture figure, Mickey Mouse, entering the public domain. The copyright for Mickey’s debut appearance in the 1928 short film, “Steamboat Willie,” finally expired, allowing a specific portrayal of the beloved character to become available for public use.

This momentous occasion follows a prolonged journey shaped by numerous extensions and revisions of copyright laws. Under U.S. copyright law, which typically spans 95 years, the extension became colloquially known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” This extension, sought not only by Disney but also by a coalition of copyright holders, aimed to safeguard their works for an extended period.

Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, compared this milestone to the puff of smoke from a steamboat, expressing her enthusiasm at the symbolic moment.

United States – The year 1927 brought with it musical compositions by the likes of Duke Ellington, cinematic masterpieces by film greats like Alfred Hitchcock, who produced his first thriller in 1927, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, and pieces of classic literature, such as To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. All the authors, composers, and directors of those pieces, along with others like them, wisely had their works copyrighted, giving them exclusive rights over how (and by whom) their work could be used.

However, January 1st of each year marks the expiration of another year of historical copyrights, and 2023 ushered works from the year 1927 into the public domain, making them eligible for extensive use without peVirginia-Woolf-Copyright-300x163rmission or royalties.  Although copyright expirations may mean a loss of income and control for the original authors/producers of the material, the public domain gives current artists opportunities to draw inspiration and build on previous ideas.  It gives libraries, historians, and museums the right to collect and preserve documents and media that would otherwise be destroyed or remain unknown.  It also makes educational materials less expensive and readily available, because without factoring in the cost of copyright permissions, publishers and teachers can reproduce and distribute copies of materials at much lower costs to students and taxpayers.

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