When Exclusive Rights Fall into Public Domain – From Mickey Mouse to Movies in India

Last Updated at: Jul 03, 2020
When Exclusive Rights Fall into Public Domain – From Mickey Mouse to Movies in India
Deciding on plea by the Prasar Bharti, the Delhi High Court has recently granted an interim injunction on the use of the registered trademark “Doordarshan” as the name of an upcoming film. The film is now renamed “Door Ke Darshan”.


According to the Indian law, the copyrights are not granted for the idea, instead it is protected by the law. Copyrights exists in literary works such as dramas, music, books, scripts, computer programs, lyrics and many more. Copyrights are also sought in creative arts such as artwork, sculptures and photographs. Copyrights exists till the author survives or seventy more years. In this period, a copyright can be assigned, sold or licensed for a time period. This is why, most books are turning into movies now.

When we think of the most loved characters throughout history – Mickey and Minnie Mouse, instantly Disney comes to mind. From the time in 1928, when the first image of a Mickey Mouse premiered in the short-film Steamboat Willie, Disney almost became synonymous with Mickey Mouse and sought extensive copyrights on it.

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But as all good things come with expiry, so does copyright in a work. In this post, we look at how Mickey Mouse came to be granted protection from falling in the public domain and also compare it with the copyright position in India.

United States Copyrights Law & the Changing Dynamics of Protection

On January 1, 2019, every book, film, song or drama published in 1923 will fall out of copyright protection in the United States—something that hasn’t happened in four decades. In the year 1998, works published before the year 1922 were already in the public domain, and the works registered 1923 onwards were scheduled to expire in the year 1999. However, it was speculated that the family that benefitted from Disney’s exclusivity of use of Mickey Mouse lobbied with the then Congress, and got the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act enacted, which added 20 more years to the old works, giving exclusive protection to Mickey Mouse till the year 2024.

What this ensures is that if there is no retrospective (or backdated) extension of copyright to Mickey Mouse, anyone anywhere may be able to use Mickey Mouse as a character. However, Disney will still own the merchandise owing to its registered trademark, which can be renewed indefinitely.  

Why Copyrights are not indefinitely granted?

It is believed that the creation of art and artistic forms, and their enjoyment is essential to our human life. Copyrights emerged as a delicate balance between the twin goals of compensating the author and enriching public life by making art accessible. Thus, copyrights were never intended to be tools of indefinite monetization and commercialization by the creator, who is given a set number of years to reap advantages of their creation. The rise of the Internet has also changed the public sentiment and has had a deep impact on the landscape on copyright issues. Large internet companies, like Google and Wikipedia, have become powerful opponents of expanding copyright protections.


India and its Copyright law

As far as Indian laws are concerned, there is no copyright that can be granted for an idea, but rather what the law protects is the expression or the manifestation of the idea. This leads to copyrights existing in literary works like books, dramas, scripts, music, lyrics, computer programs etc. This is not all, for those in the creative arts space – copyright can also be sought for sculptures, artwork, and photographs. The only other requirement besides originality is the tangibility of the creation. What this means is that the creation should be on such a medium that is perceptible by ordinary senses, thereby eliminating any scope for granting copyrights to mere ideas.

Copyright exists for as long as the author survives, plus seventy more years. During this period, a copyright may be sold, assigned or licensed for a particular time period. This is also how most books that are turned into films are made workable.

Who would be the author – the creator, designer or producer?

In reckoning when a certain published work would fall into public domain, there exist questions on who would be termed ‘author’ under the copyright law. One would naturally assume that the person creating – the artist, the lyricist, the singer to be authors. However, most commercial contracts include a clause that necessitates surrendering of copyright ownership by the real creator in favour of the producer or publishing or investing company in the film or the book. They can then sell or license these to others for commercial purposes. This also raises legal questions on the real impact of copyrights, its initial purpose of rewarding the artists and falling of the published works in the public domain for re-use by the public.

While Shakespearian works may have fallen into public domain long ago, it is movies released before 1950 that would be considered to have become freely available for use by the public.

From January 1, 2019 in US all the books, songs, drama or film which are published in 1923 have fallen out of copyrights protection. But Disney have exclusively making use of Mickey Mouse under the Sonny Bono copyright term extension act , which has extended to 20 more years providing exclusive protection till 2024

Avani Mishra is a graduate in law from the National Law Institute University, Bhopal. She qualified the Company Secretary course with an All India Rank 1 and is a recipient of the President’s Gold Medal for her academic distinctions. She also holds a B.Com degree with a specialization in Corporate Affairs and Administration.