As we celebrate the new year with fireworks and champagne, our public domain is getting larger. On Sunday, dozens of famous books, movies, and songs slipped free from copyright control after nearly a century under the thumb of their owners. That means these properties may now be exploited by anyone, for nearly any purpose. Newly adaptable works include the first movie “talkie” The Jazz Singer, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Arthur Conan Doyle’s final few Sherlock Holmes stories, and even a fitting Broadway song to mark the occasion: “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” (You can find a longer list here.) Meanwhile, everyone is counting down to an even greater prize: “Steamboat Willie,” otherwise known as the earliest version of Mickey Mouse, which will enter the public domain on Jan. 1, 2024.
The prospect of a free Mickey Mouse—even the naughty, early version instead of the cuddly character most know—holds special significance since this very rodent is widely credited with bringing about America’s lengthy copyright term in the first place. As the story goes, Disney successfully lobbied Congress for an extension near the end of the 20th century when it faced Mickey’s copyright mortality. This tale is true, if a rather simplistic version of the various forces that drove a change in the law. Regardless, the narrative that Disney cast an evil spell on lawmakers to firm up its hold on a lucrative kiddie character carries a lot of symbolic weight. So much so that when Disney clashed with Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, politicians like U.S. Senator Josh Hawley proposed stripping Disney’s “special copyright protections” (never mind that such a punitive move would be unlikely to withstand judicial review).
Given what’s coming for the iconic character, I wasn’t surprised to read an early curtain-raiser in The New York Times last week. The article, written by the smart Brooks Barnes, nails a lot of things: He speaks to the right experts, he correctly distinguishes between copyright and trademark law (trust me, a lot of reporters screw that up), and he even cites relevant Supreme Court precedent. Unfortunately, and not necessarily the author’s fault, it also reflects some stale thinking about the copyright business.