The Memo: Disney's copyright expires

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Disney’s copyright expires

Amy Howe – 20 February 2023

A gore-filled slasher is far from anything we’d ever imagined seeing the world’s favourite teddy bear featured in. Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey hit US theatres last week and is set to be released to UK audiences next month. So far, reviews suggest the film leaves much to be desired… but it also leaves us with questions around how this was possible. What else is to become of our beloved childhood characters?!

In January last year, Disney’s copyright of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books expired, making Milne’s depiction of Winnie the Pooh essentially free for all. In the US, copyrights hold a time stamp of 95 years – in the UK, it’s 70 years. Milne’s book Winnie the Pooh was published in 1926 which, under US copyright law, makes it public domain at the beginning of 2022. But there are some asterisks involved.

Though the copyright of Milne’s book has come to an end, Disney still holds certain trademarks over the character, including the cartoon version, which were introduced by Disney after their acquisition of the rights to the book. These include Pooh’s iconic red t-shirt and his hallmark saying, ‘Oh bother’. In Blood and Honey we see Pooh donning an oversized lumberjack shirt as to not infringe on Disney’s trademarks. Thanks to nuances in US law, trademark and copyright are not dealt with in the same way. Once expired, copyrights are almost impossible to renew, while trademarks can exist indefinitely as long as you can maintain that whatever you’re trying to trademark is directly associated with your company.

Similarly, while the film featured many of Pooh’s friends, one iconic figure was missing: Tigger. This is because Tigger was first introduced in Milne’s second book, The House at Pooh Corner, which was released two years after the first book. Disney owns the copyright for Tigger until next year. Who knows what we’ll be faced with then.

In what may be an even more horror-inspiring turn of events, Disney’s copyright of Steamboat Willie – the first film featuring Mickey Mouse – is also set to expire next year. This time, the asterisks are a little more complicated. The constant evolution of Mickey’s appearance in a way protects the copyright of his character. When the copyright for Steamboat Willie expires, Disney will only lose the rights to the first iteration of Mickey’s character. What’s more, Disney holds the trademark rights to Mickey Mouse, which, as mentioned earlier, can be indefinitely renewed. So, while other artists may be able to use the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse in their own productions, they could be in hot water if they infringe on Disney’s trademark. Therefore, it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing Mickey Mouse: Cheese and Guts anytime soon… and maybe thankfully so.