Copyright Duration: How Disney Moved the Finish Line

This post is excerpted from Ownability – How Intellectual Property Works, now available for pre-order at a 20% discount at

In 2002, Steam Boat Willy, the first major film in which the venerable Mickey Mouse character appears, was about to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its release. Under the copyright law in force at that time, which dictated a 75-year duration for copyrights held by companies, the copyright for Steam Boat Willy was set to expire on the 75th anniversary of its release.This would have thrust the movie into the public domain for all to copy and enjoy.

The copyright to Steam Boat Willy was (and is) of course held by the Walt Disney company. It is probably safe to say that the folks at Disney were troubled by the prospect of Steam Boat Willy’s entering the public domain. It could be argued that when Steam Boat Willy enters the public domain, the copyright on the Mickey Mouse character could be considerably weakened. Once the movie enters the public domain, it is possible that all imagery from the movie, including still shots of Mickey himself, could be freely copied without threat of infringement claims. In 2002, Mickey Mouse was threatening to join the ranks of Lady MacBeth, Robin Hood, and Count Dracula as characters in the public commons, and would thereby become freely available for anyone to use for just about any purpose.

The folks at Disney lobbied their local congressperson, who incidentally was (the now late) Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher fame, to prevail upon him to prevent Mickey Mouse, an American national treasure, from entering the public domain. Congressman Bono thereupon presented legislation to the U.S. congress to lengthen by 20 years the statutory duration of copyright protection for works like Steam Boat Willy. And that legislation, now known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 2002, easily passed, extending the duration of copyright on works for hire from 75 years to 95 years.

Amid accusations that the U.S. had dipped from capitalist democracy into oligarchic plutocracy, Disney, a wealthy and powerful organization, commiserated with one of its own brethren, Rep. Bono, to cause the rules that govern us all to be changed to its considerable financial favor. Mickey Mouse was saved from the hands of the public for another 20 years. We shall see what happens when Mickey’s first film reaches its 95th anniversary in 2022.

One thing is certain: While there are those who dislike IP, few of them work in Hollywood or Washington D.C.

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