Has it really been fifteen years since the Copyright Term Extension Act was signed into law? (It has. President Clinton signed the bill on October 27, 1998.) Time flies when you’re protected by copyright law, I suppose. And what the CTEA did, of course, is extend the period of copyright (for many works) for another two decades. (For the details and a discussion of the opposition to the law, read this piece from the Washington Post.)
The CTEA is popularly known as the “Sonny Bono Act” (in memory of the musician-turned-Congressman who had died tragically earlier in 1998)… and derisively as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” because if not for the CTEA, “Steamboat Willie,” the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, would have entered the public domain in 2003. According to some, this would have allowed anyone to use the character in new works, but that hardly seems correct, being that (1) the depiction of Mickey Mouse is a registered trademark of the Walt Disney Company, and (2) there is no 2. If the 1928 short film were to enter the public domain, there would likely be very little harm done to Disney. Many much wiser legal scholars than I have addressed this topic, however, so instead I’m going to tell you about my personal connection to Mickey Mouse:
Years ago, my late paternal grandfather had a business that sold souvenir items to gift shops in New York City. My grandfather, as I understand it, bought in bulk various and sundry (cheap) novelty items, like plates, mugs, key chains, oversized pencils, piggy banks, etc., on which he would then have printed or otherwise applied graphics to make them New York City souvenirs. Usually, the graphic was some form of the I?NY (a trademark of the State of New York).
And sometimes it included a depiction of none other than Mickey Mouse.
Yes, my grandfather received a cease-and-desist letter from counsel for Disney. I couldn’t tell you if my grandfather ceased or desisted applying Mickey Mouse graphics on the souvenirs that he sold to gift shops. He probably did. That is, he certainly did when he eventually gave up the business and moved to Florida.
So there’s my confession: I come from a family of trademark infringers. One, anyway. I hope you’ll still be able to respect me. It feels good to get that off my chest, anyway.