chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
June 27, 2023 Feature

Last Days of Disney’s Rights on Mickey Mouse: Isn’t the Term of Copyright Too Long?

Pratap Devarapalli

©2023. Published in Landslide, Vol. 15, No. 4, June/July 2023, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Extension of the copyright term has been a point of contention in recent years, with some arguing that it will have a negative impact on future creativity and innovation. This is particularly evident in the case of Mickey Mouse, whose copyright term has been repeatedly extended, giving Disney a permanent monopoly and restricting the ability of subsequent creators to build upon or use the character. While copyright protection is crucial for ensuring that creators are acknowledged and compensated for their intellectual and artistic contributions, it is also necessary to create a balance between their interests and those of the public and future creators.

As Disney’s Mickey Mouse’s copyright term will expire at the end of 2023 in the United States, this article sheds light on the reasons behind long-term copyright protection and whether they are in the public’s interest. In addition, it examines arguments for and against the present term of copyright protection. Finally, it recommends shortening the term of copyright protection.

Copyright Protection and Territoriality

Intellectual property protection has become one of the major tools to legally protect creations for a specific period. Copyright protection provides legal rights to creators for using and distributing their original work for a limited period. Since 1709, from the day when copyright law emerged, the term of copyright protection has gone through different vicissitudes. Over time, the term of copyright protection has been lengthened greatly in comparison with other intellectual property rights. Lifetime of an author plus 50 or 70 years is something that is far away from the term of other intellectual property rights.

The extent to which changes to the copyright term in one jurisdiction may influence the copyright term in other jurisdictions will depend on the laws and treaties in existence. First, it is important to understand that copyright laws are territorial, meaning they only apply within the boundaries of the jurisdiction that enacted them. Therefore, the copyright term does not immediately change if the copyright term in one jurisdiction changes. Many countries, however, have signed international copyright treaties, such as the Berne Convention and the TRIPS Agreement, which establish minimum copyright protection requirements that member states must meet. These agreements mandate that member states protect the copyrighted works of other member states in reciprocity.

A Brief History of Copyright Term Extension

The first copyright legislation, the Statute of Anne, was enacted in England in 1709 and came into force in 1710. The original duration of copyright protection was 14 years, with the possibility of renewing for another 14 years. Many other nations that formed their own copyright laws adopted this basic structure of a defined period of copyright protection with a possibility of renewal. Since then, term extensions for copyright have been a common practice.

In 1774, the case of Donaldson v. Beckett indicated that copyright protection for literary works was a legislative right of limited period. Decades later, in 1841, a speech by T. B. Macaulay addressing the House of Commons opposed extending copyright protection to 60 years. While supporting a copyright system that provides incentives to creators and authors, he opposed extension of the term of copyright, as there were no specific advantages of such long-term protection. Moreover, he emphasized that he hadn’t seen any reason why remunerations and rewards should be paid more than half a century after a creator’s death to someone often unrelated to them.

In 1878, the Royal Commission of the United Kingdom took steps to develop uniformity in the term of copyright and suggested that the term of protection be the life of the creator plus 30 years. The commission recommended that the term of copyright protection for all kinds of works, such as sculptures, fine art, books, and musical and dramatic works, be the same. In support, the commission noted that a unified term of copyright protection a number of years from the author’s death had been successfully endorsed in other jurisdictions and would help in harmonizing copyright law accordingly.

In 1886, the internationalization of copyright protection took place in Berne, Switzerland. Almost 172 countries joined together and designed an internationally applicable harmonized copyright law for the protection of literary and artistic works. Article 7(1) of the Berne Convention details that the term of copyright protection shall be the life of the author plus 50 years. Article 7(6) states that the signatories of the convention may allow a term in addition to the author’s death plus 50 years. This feasibility provided by the Berne Convention has allowed nations all over the globe to increase the term of copyright protection beyond 50 years from the death of the author.

One of the reasons behind extension of the term of copyright protection in different countries is lobbying by major copyright creators and authors. A well-known and successful lobbying occurred to extend the copyright term in the United States from 50 years from the death of the author to 70 years from the death of the author. In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Disney successfully lobbied Congress to extend the copyright term for works created on or after January 1, 1978, to “life of the author plus 70 years,” and copyrights for anonymous works, pseudonymous works, or works made for hire to 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. At the time, there were only five years left in Disney’s ability to protect Mickey Mouse. This successful lobbying helped Mickey Mouse avoid falling into the public domain and extended its copyright protection up to 2023. If Congress passes yet another law extending copyright terms, Mickey Mouse’s copyright protection might be extended again.

Arguments for and against Long-Term Copyright Protection

On the one hand, there are copyright owners who personally believe that long-term copyright protection is necessary to provide appropriate incentives to creators. On the other hand, critics of long-term copyright protection strongly believe that 70 years after the author’s death creates monopolies and hinders subsequent innovation.

Some creators and authors believe that rewards and remunerations for their original works can only be provided due to long-term protection of their works through copyright. They justify that an author will only receive incentives for the original work for a long time if the work is worthy enough to be bought by people up to 70 years after the author passes away. In addition, creators believe that they should be rewarded financially, primarily as a means of making a living and secondly as an incentive to create. In this regard, these creators and authors believe that the long term of copyright protection will empower and drive their creativity and help them financially so that they can put more effort into developing new works.

Conversely, the critics of long-term copyright protection argue that the long term of copyright is actually filling the pockets of others rather than the original creators of the work. These critics believe that very few authors or creators get incentives for their work as major portions of the incentives or royalties are being engulfed by other parties, such as publishers and distributors of the work.

Critics also contend that the practice of long-term copyright protection is impairing innovation and creativity. An author or creator of a blockbuster work can sit for their lifetime enjoying the fruits of just one work. The author or creator may have less motivation to come up with new works as the royalties coming from their blockbuster work would be enough for their life and for their heirs until 70 years after their death. And while the abundant source of the public domain is considered to be the fuel for novel creations and innovations, the extended term of copyright is restricting creators from using works and developing new creations. Upcoming creators are stepping back and getting discouraged due to long-term copyright protection. Moreover, this practice of long-term copyright protection may lead to extinction of available works, as other creators can only be legally inspired by the copyrighted work once its protection expires.

Mike Konrad is an author and critic of copyright term extension. He has written extensively on the subject, suggesting that the public domain, innovation, and creativity are all impacted by copyright term extension. According to Konrad, copyright term extensions primarily serve to benefit large media corporations and keep works from falling into the public domain. He contends that the public domain is crucial to creativity and innovation because it permits authors to expand on preexisting works without fearing legal proceedings for infringement. Konrad argues that by prolonging the copyright term, the legislation effectively grants the copyright holder a lifelong monopoly, preventing others from expanding upon or using the work in any way. He observes, “Movies and DVDs are released with altered sound tracks for fear of litigation. More often than realized, creative works are not released at all, because the copyright holder is not even known; and no one dares take the risk.”

These words clearly reflect that extension of the term of copyright protection has impaired innovation in the United States and has discouraged new creators from developing upon available works. Konrad’s observation shows that extension of the term of copyright protection not only has impacted innovation in the book industry but also has an enormous impact on innovation in other creative industries, such as movies.

Advantages of Shortening the Term

There have been many examples of copyrighted works that were relatively unknown during the period of copyright protection but have become well-known after getting into the public domain. The famous film It’s a Wonderful Life had lost profits and popularity due to the copyright term restriction, but once the copyright protection was exhausted, the film became very popular. This example teaches us that the period of copyright protection plays a crucial role in a work becoming well-known and profitable. Even when this scenario is compared with the durations of other intellectual property rights, we can observe that the copyright system is falling behind due to provisions of long-term copyright protection.

Most authors and creators believe that creations and works cannot be shaped in a vacuum. Creative thoughts are developed incrementally where creativity, ingenuity, and inventiveness are built upon observing the work of others, but the long copyright durations make the works unattainable. Short-term copyright protection could bring life to authors and creators as more works would enter the public domain within a shorter period. Moreover, a shorter term of copyright protection could bring the prices of copyrighted works down, which would eventually help in getting out the works to many people, ultimately bringing notoriety to the authors and creators.

Further lengthening the term of copyright protection could eventually reflect a negative impact on economic development. In this case, authors and creators might be demotivated to step into work for new creations, leading to a sluggish pace of creative works and eventually impairing the economy and nations’ development. Alternatively, shortening the term of copyright protection could encourage authors and creators to implant their creativity in new works, leading to an abundance of innovations and good economic development.


Although the primary intent of copyright laws was to encourage the creation of new works, the extension of copyright terms may make it more difficult for future authors and innovators to expand upon or use preexisting works. Long-term copyright protection gives the copyright owner a monopoly that can limit the number of works in the public domain that are available, inhibiting creativity and innovation. Further limiting the capacity of future authors to expand on earlier works, it may also hinder the creation of derivative or adaptational works. Additionally, it might not be necessary to provide long-term copyright protection to encourage creators to develop new works. Since many artists are motivated by interests other than monetary gain, the public domain can be a great source of ideas for new works.

As Mickey Mouse prepares to enter the public domain, reassessing the duration of copyright protection and figuring out ways to strike a balance between copyright owners’ interests and those of the public and future creators may be required to foster future innovation and creativity. This could entail expanding copyright exclusions and restrictions, promoting the creation of works that are intended to enter the public domain, and coming up with other strategies to encourage the development of new works that do not entirely rely on copyright protection.

    The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

    Pratap Devarapalli

    Queensland, Australia

    Pratap Devarapalli is an intellectual property researcher, focusing his research on advanced technologies.


    The author thanks Professor Kamal Puri for his extensive review and suggestions on this article.