The Myth of the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” Has Reached its “Sell By” Date

It’s about time for the myth of the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” to take its final bow. Of course it was never true, but that did not stop people from ginning up publicity (about themselves or their organizations) by declaring that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, passed in 1998, was all about protecting the property of Disney and particularly Mickey Mouse.

“There was not a single argument that actually can stand up to any kind of reasonable analysis,” says Dennis Karjala, a law professor at Arizona State who emerged as a de facto leader of the opposition to the law.” 1

With apologies to Prof. Karjala, who died in 2017 and is thus unable to rebut my argument, there were several very important policy considerations that favored the extension, as noted in my previous blog post, 2 mainly the importance of bringing the United States to an equal playing field with that of the majority of the world, in terms of the length of copyright protection.

But this was not enough. They kept insisting, without the citation of any evidence, that when Mickey Mouse was set to enter into the public domain, Disney was GOING TO DO IT AGAIN. Consider these headlines:

“15 years ago, Congress kept Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. Will they do it again?” 3

“The Mickey Mouse struggle: Will Disney reshape copyright law again?” 4

With these breathless pronouncements:

“The big question now is whether incumbent copyright holders will try to get yet another extension of copyright terms before works begin falling into the public domain again on January 1, 2019…most of the experts we spoke to said the stakes are so high that a renewed lobbying push is almost inevitable.” 5

“With the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, today Disney’s mascot is dangerously close to being released into the public domain. Unless the company successfully lobbies another extension, Steamboat Willie is set to expire next year. Based on its history, we should expect that Disney has been lobbying to keep ownership and protection over its beloved character.” 6

And this from noted anti-copyright critic Chris Sprigman:

“If Hollywood and their allies want to do this, they’re going to have to start doing it now, I would imagine there are discussions going on.” 7 [N.B. “now” is the year 2013]


It didn’t happen. Not even close. No bills were introduced. To the best of my knowledge, no bills are planned to be introduced. Congress has only to the end of this year to prevent “Steamboat Willie” and “The Barn Dance” from entering the public domain. 8 Not going to happen. 9

I have been predicting this outcome since 2014.

Because the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” was a myth and always has been a myth.

First off, let’s note that Disney was far from the only organization that lobbied for the extension. Others included Time Warner, Universal, Viacom, the major professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB), 10 and the Estates of George Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein. 11

But then again, the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” carries a more succinct punch than the “Rhapsody in Blue” Protection Act, which having been composed in 1924, 12 would have entered the public domain much earlier than “Steamboat Willie.”

And it certainly is a lot punchier than the “There are solid policy reasons for extending US copyrights Act.” I have covered this subject at length in previous blog posts. 13 So let’s take a short course:

  • The United States makes the most popular and profitable Intellectual Property in the world.
  • At the time of the passage of the SBCTEA, copyright protection in the US lagged the rest of the world by 20 years.
  • The Berne Treaty’s “Rule of the Shorter Term,” made them less competitive with European works.
  • The majority of the world has a copyright term of Life plus 70 years.
  • Only a handful of nations have longer terms: Mexico at Life plus 100 years, Spain at Life plus 80 years.

So, let’s take a look at how this plays out in economic terms.

At the end of 2021, FaceBook (Meta) had 71,990 employees worldwide. 14

Walt Disney World employs 75,000 people in Florida alone. It is the largest single site employer in the United States. 15 The Walt Disney Company currently employs 195,000 people worldwide, down from pre-pandemic levels of 223,000 in 2019. 16 Isn’t copyright good for the economy?

Mark my words, when “Steamboat Willie” passes into the public domain (and it will), the anti-copyright crowd will never admit that they were wrong about the SBCTEA, and have been actively misleading the public all these years. They will instead crow “we won the war without firing a shot.” Which leads to the question: For years you have been saying you were not “anti-copyright” but you were for “better copyright.” Now you admit that you were “at war” with copyright all along.

Which begs this question: Why are you “at war” with something that employs so many people?

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