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The fight to use Mickey Mouse

Episode Summary

In 2024, Disney could lose the copyright on Mickey Mouse that it's held for a century. Conservatives want to let it happen — but Disney will fight back.

Episode Notes

Mickey Mouse has been the mascot for Disney going back to the days of, well, Walt himself. But the copyright for the mouse that Disney has zealously guarded for decades is set to expire in just two years. That means the black-and-white version of Mickey Mouse depicted in “Steamboat Willie” would be in the public domain, where anyone can do anything with him and all of his magic and fame.

A group of Republicans, mad at some of Disney stances on social issues recently, want that to happen. Disney though, ain’t going to let Mickey go without putting up a hell of a fight. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times travel reporter Hugo Martín

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Episode Transcription

Gustavo: When you hear the word Disney, close your eyes, just think about it. What, what's the first thing that pops into your brain? 

I'm old, so it's not going to be the theme parks for me. It's not going to be a princess like Elsa from “Frozen” or the Marvel Cinematic Universe or “Toy Story” or any of that Millennial crap.

It's going to be that high-pitched voice emanating from a very round head with nice, cute ears wearing red shorts and oversized yellow shoes.

I'm talking about Mickey Mouse. 

AP Clip of Mickey song? 
Mic-key, m-o-u-s-e. 

beat drop 

Mickey Mouse, of course, mascot for Disney going back to the days of, well, Walt himself. 

But the copyright for that mouse that Disney has zealously guarded for decades, it's set to expire in just two years. 

That means Mickey would be in the (gasp) public domain, where anyone can do anything with him and all of his magic and fame. 

A group of Republicans, mad at some of Disney stances on social issues recently, want that to happen. But Disney though, ain't going to let Mickey go without putting up a hell of a fight.

BEAT drop 2 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times,” daily news from the LA Times. It's Wednesday, May 11, 2022. 

Today, the fight for who could actually use Mickey Mouse.

Mux fade out 

Gustavo: LA Times travel industry reporter Hugo Martin joins us now to make sense of this cartoon conundrum. Hugo, welcome to “The Times.” 

Hugo: Thanks for having me, Gustavo. 

Gustavo: OK, so we all know Mickey Mouse is Disney for crying out loud. He's still on the paycheck stubs for Disney employees, those few people who still get paychecks, like physical paychecks. So, this public domain fight over his fate is huge for the company, but since this is a legal story, it could get complicated really fast. So what exactly is the public domain and what sort of stuff pertains to it?

Hugo: Mickey Mouse, who debuted back in 1928 in a little cartoon called uh “Steamboat Willie,” his copyright protection expires in 2024. And copyright basically means that you can't put out another cartoon that has a little mouse named Mickey and he’s got the round ears and all that. That's what copyright protection is. Because that's going to expire under the law, basically, you would think people could then put out Mickey Mouse cartoons or put Mickey Mouse on different products. That's where it gets a little squirrely because Disney also has trademark protections on Mickey Mouse. So as you pointed out, Mickey Mouse is literally the logo of the company. So if you put out something that has Mickey Mouse on it, you’re, sort of, giving the idea that this is blessed or is a product of Disney and you can't do that. So, that's where this whole sort of discussion about copyright, trademark and protection, sort of, gets a little complicated.

Gustavo: So, we’ll dig into those complications later…but when copyright expires, then things enter the public domain…And the public domain basically means you can do whatever you want with something. Like, for instance, the characters from the Jungle Book, because the characters are so old, people can use him however they want. 

Hugo: Yeah, Robin Hood, Frankenstein's monster, all these characters that //  were created back in the ‘20s are in public domain. So, I could literally write a book called “Robin Hood” about, you know, a guy who lives in the forest and steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Same thing with Mickey Mouse supposedly in uh 2024, that's where Mickey Mouse is going to end up, in public domain.

Gustavo: And Mickey Mouse, he's already played an important role in the history of copyright law…

Hugo: Yes, because //  Disney is so protective of, not only Mickey Mouse, but all of its intellectual properties. 


Hugo:  When the Mickey Mouse copyright was set to expire back in ‘84, Disney pushed and lobbied lawmakers to extend that protection for a few more years. And then when that came to expire again, once again, Disney came in and lobbied and donated a lot of money and got a bill passed in Congress to extend it a second time.

AP TAPE: The 20-year extension protects the copyrights on certain depictions of Disney's Mickey Mouse, as well as hundreds of other books, movies and songs. 


Hugo: So now we're facing 2024, where, supposedly, perhaps lawmakers might want to extend the protection a third time. 


Gustavo: But no legislation has been proposed to extend the copyright a third time yet…but  Disney still might push to keep it going?

Hugo: Supposedly, we don't know. Disney wouldn't talk to me about it, but, supposedly, they do want to keep this protection and now the reason this whole issue has come up is because there's a group of Republican members of Congress who've written to Disney and have said, “We're going to let copyright expire because we don't like your ‘woke ideology.’” And so, that's why we're discussing this now because these politicians have threatened to let the copyright expire and not support any effort to // extend it again. 

Gustavo: It's really quite remarkable because, you know, again, you've been covering Disney for so long and historically it gets what it wants with both sides of the political aisle. But this issue in Florida, the “Don't Say Gay” bill, that really, and we did an episode about it, and that really pushed Disney into the culture wars the way it hasn't in a long time, if ever. So, just to remind me what that “Don't Say Gay” bill was about and how Disney got dragged into this.

Hugo:  Right. So, in Florida Gov. DeSantis pushed legislation that basically said in schools you're not allowed to teach or discuss issues of, uh, sexual orientation with children when it's age inappropriate. 

Mux in

AP TAPE: Teachers in Florida are forbidden from instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, 

Hugo: And originally the Disney corporation stayed mum about it. They didn't want to have anything to do with it, even though Disney is one of the biggest employers in Florida, with Disney world, all its theme parks down there. They faced a big backlash from, not only Disney guests and Disney fans, but from Disney employees. So finally, Bob Chapek, the CEO of Disney, spoke out against this “Don't Say Gay” legislation saying that //  he didn't support it and felt it should be repealed.

AP TAPE: Disney opposes a new law barring instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The company paused political donations and the CEO apologized in mid-March for the company silence about the matter.

Hugo: That's when Disney got pulled into, as you say, this cultural war.

AP TAPE: The feud between Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Disney over what critics call the “Don't Say Gay” bill continues to escalate.  "I don't care what corporate media outlets say. I don't care what Hollywood says. I don't care what big corporations say. Here I stay. I'm not backing down." 

Hugo: Disney has usually tried to stay clear of these political infights and it has been a huge campaign contributor to both sides of the aisle. All of a sudden it's thrown in the middle of this mix and it's getting targeted by uh Republicans.

 Mux out 

Gustavo: Yeah, they get their special tax exempt status broken around Orlando and now the Republicans are threatening them with Mickey Mouse himself. Wow. 

Hugo: Right. 

mux in, to take us to break

Gustavo: More after the break. 


Gustavo: So Hugo, what's Mickey's origin story again?

Hugo: Well, Disney, had a  previous character that // he had drawn and there was some issue where I think Universal Pictures or some company had bought the rights and so he had to come up with something new and he was on a train and he was doodling and he came up with this little mouse. And he showed it to his wife and he said, “What do you think? I think it's going to be a Mortimer Mouse.” 

Gustavo: Ha. Mortimer.

Hugo: And she said, “No, nix Mortimer. That's not going to work.” So he came up with Mickey Mouse and that's basically how it all started. 

Gustavo: And almost a century later, it's still that simple origin story that a lot of Disney fans center as the essence of Disney, and Disney knows this. That's why they're so adamantly such a Mickey company. 

Hugo: Yeah, you ask most hardcore Disney fans, “How did, you know, the Pluto character come about” or, or Donald Duck, they don't know that. They know the Mickey story because he was the beginning of it all. 

Gustavo: Outside of just straight up pride, would losing Mickey to the public domain hurt Disney's bottom line? I mean, Disney makes money upon money upon money. You're talking about from ESPN to Marvel, to the Star Wars universe, all the theme parks. Would losing Mickey really hurt them that much?

Hugo: That's a good point because // Disney now has so many intellectual properties, as you point out, Star Wars and Pixar and all these others, but Mickey is still the quintessential Disney character. I mean, when you think about Disney you think of Mickey. When you go to Disneyland or Disney world, you get them Mickey ears, right? 

TIKTOK TAPE: I have literally all these Mickey ears and my family and I are going to Disney in two days. So I'm going to match these to my Jordans to put cute fits together.

mux in 

TIKTOK TAPE: Well, Mickey Mouse is such a lovable creature.

Hugo: So, the point is that Disney can't really move on and say, “All right, we're going to leave Mickey behind and maybe we'll // adopt, I don't know, Han Solo or someone else as our, as our character.” It doesn't work. Mickey's been there from the very beginning. 

mux in 

Tiktok: Everybody likes Mickey. I love Mickey since I was a little girl. 

TiktoK: We got a lot of friends with us on YouTube Live this morning at, to near magic. They're so happy to see you back. I've had people asking, “When are we going to be able to have Mickey again?” I know it's about time. We're so excited and we're loving the duds looking good, looking sparkly.

Hugo: And so it's tied to the company. And so that's why I think this is such an important fight for Disney that they can't lose their quintessential, iconic  logo. He's really a logo. He's a trademark that started the whole thing. 

mux out

Hugo: And, some Disney experts, people who've studied the company, say not only is it just the symbol, but it also, sort of, exudes a value. Like, Mickey's happy, Mickey's fun, Mickey's innocent and that's supposedly the image that the company wants to give of itself. You know, fun,  happy, innocent is Disney, that's their emotions that they want to put out. 

Gustavo: There's a concept in video and audio called fair use, where we can get away with running snippets of something we didn't create as long as we put it in its proper context. Well, we're not going to try that here with Disney, because Disney's legendary in protecting all of its intellectual property with all the financial might you could imagine. So, Hugo, how's their legal team reacting to the possible expiration of the Mickey copyright?

Hugo: As I said, Disney's not commenting to us about this, but we have talked to lawmakers and experts who have talked to Disney executives about this issue. And they said, they're really not panicked and it may be because of what you say. // Their legal might is tremendous and their financial might is tremendous as well. And most people who are out in the industry, would not dare go up against Disney and try to steal one of their valued intellectual properties. //  They're worth billions // Trying to take some of that away from Disney, it's not going to be easy. Disney's not going to //  let that slide. 

mux in

Hugo: I talked to UC Berkeley professor Robert Vargas, who was saying that he doesn't think that the expiration of the copyright would make much difference. And he believes that what the Republicans are doing is pretty much just a political ploy to make points  with their voting base. 

mux out

Gustavo: I'm sure also that Disney has been getting ready for this day, ever since they were able to get that extension 25 years ago as well. Did they do anything with Mickey Mouse, like incorporate him into some other things just even have more legal protection?

Hugo: Yeah, and I didn't know this until I spoke to a professor at // Pepperdine, who said she noticed that at the beginning of the new animated movies like “Tangled” and some of the newer ones, at the very beginning, there's a clip of “Steamboat Willie,” just a very small clip. And she believes that by inserting this into the modern animated movies, they've, sort of, added the protection by saying, “This is now our logo”, or “This now represents us. ‘Steamboat Willie’ is the Disney trademark.” And so, that in a sense // can protect Disney from having people use “Steamboat Willie” // once the copyright expires. 

Gustavo: So more legalese, what's the difference between a trademark and a copyright? 

Hugo: Again, I'm not an attorney. 

Gustavo: But you play one on radio. 

Hugo: I don't get paid as much. I pretend to be one in podcasts. But from speaking to academics and lawyers, I learned that //  copyright protection is basically saying, you cannot literally copy this. You cannot put Mickey Mouse with this particular face and shape and call it Mickey on your products. Trademark is more like a logo or a slogan or something that represents the company like Chevrolet, Ford or any of those logos. Those are trademarks that represent the company. So if you were to put Mickey Mouse on a backpack or tennis shoes or whatever, people would get the impression that that's a Disney product. And if that were the case, then you would be violating trademark. So that's one way that Disney could say, “Yeah, we don't have copyright on Mickey anymore, but that's basically our logo, that's our trademark. And you're giving the impression that that's a Disney product or a Disney service, and you can't do that.” 

Gustavo: So you mean those coin banks that I buy down at Tijuana with Mickey, that's not a Disney product?

Hugo: That's not a Disney product. Yeah, // and you and they may be violating trademark by making those //  coin banks. 

Gustavo: Uh oh. OK, Let's just say Disney's copyright on Mickey Mouse does expire and Mickey goes into the public domain. Then what?

Hugo: Well then conceivably any company could put out // products with that particular image, Mickey from “Steamboat, Willie.” And if Disney does nothing then // that's just what happens. But most likely Disney will come back at those people and say, “You're violating a trademark protection. Cease and desist, and if you don't, you could get fined heavily.”

Gustavo: And then finally Google, how do the Disney fans feel? You know, so much of fandom nowadays is fan fiction. People create characters or whatnot. Obviously Disney fans haven't been able to make that because of all these infringements. Do they want Mickey to be freed from his copyright jail?

Hugo: You know, they love Mickey and I think that you // get people on both sides. There are some adamant defenders of Disney and everything Disney does, and they would not want to see other companies making // Mickey Mouse cartoons, or Mickey Mouse anything. They would feel like, oh, that sort of diminishes // the image and the story. And then there's others, like you say, who would love to see /// other people take Mickey and do different things with him. Put them in different adventures, new cartoons, new animations.


Hugo: So, it's all over the place and we're going to have to see what happens in 2024. If it does expire, yeah we may see Mickey out there in a whole bunch of different scenarios, you know? 

MUX beat 

Gustavo: Hugo, thank you so much for this conversation. 

Hugo: Alright, thanks. 



Outro mux in

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of “The Times,” daily news from the LA Times. 

Angel Carreras was the jefe on this episode and our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo , Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras. 

Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. 

Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. 

Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eappen. Like what you're listening to? Then make sure to follow “The Times” on whatever platform you use. Don't make us the Rickey Rouse of podcasts. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre, gracias.