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Winnie the Pooh Goes Public (Domain)
When Walt Disney Productions first licensed the film rights to Winnie the Pooh in 1961 and created the Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree animated featurette, no one knew just what that Silly Ol’ Bear would become. Forty years — and hundreds of millions of dollars later — Disney purchased the character outright. The entire Winnie the Pooh brand now earns an estimated $3-6 billion each year, making it one of the highest-grossing properties in the world.
But, as of January 1, 2022, there’s trouble in paradise. A.A. Milne’s original storybook, Winnie the Pooh, entered the public domain this year and can now be used freely by third parties. For example, this comic would not have been possible three weeks ago:
As the second panel suggests, it’s not quite open season on all things Winnie the Pooh. The character itself, along with the stories and illustrations from Milne’s 1926 book, is now fair game. That also includes Pooh’s supporting cast of Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore1, Owl, and Kanga. Anything created after 1926, though, remains protected.
Disney still exclusively owns Tigger (who took his bow in 1928’s The House at Pooh Corner), original characters like Gopher and Lumpy, and the most well-known depiction of Winnie the Pooh. The one with the red shirt. Anyone using the public domain Pooh is restricted to the simpler, line-drawn version of the character that Luke McGarry uses above.
This can all be pretty confusing, so I’ll channel my inner Johnnie Cochran to explain: “If the shirt is red, you can not tread.”2
Tigger bounces into the public domain in 2024, but Disney has much bigger fish to fry that year. Namely, Mickey Mouse. The Disney mascot debuted in 1928’s Steamboat Willie, setting the stage for the mother of all copyright fights in just two short years. Again, this would only apply to Mickey’s rather plain, black-and-white design from that short3, but that’s cold comfort to Disney.
Like Winnie the Pooh and his red shirt, the modern Mickey Mouse most recognizable to fans today will remain under copyright for the time being. That means Mickey in white gloves, with eyes more expressive than simple black dots, or even just in color, is years away from the public domain. Famous instances of the character, like Sorcerer Mickey from Fantasia, are further off still.
In 1998, Disney (and other interested parties) successfully lobbied Congress to extend the copyright term to 95 years. For whatever reason, Disney made no serious effort to get a copyright extension before Winnie the Pooh aged out this year.
Trademarks, though, never expire. And it might be upon this battlefield that Disney chooses to wage war. A trademark, which Disney holds on Mickey Mouse, “protects words, phrases, and symbols used to identify the source of the products or services”. In other words, would a derivative Mickey Mouse third-party creation cause confusion with consumers over whether or not it’s an official Disney product?
Mickey Mouse is the face of The Walt Disney Company in every way. Inseparable, even. Disney’s many trademarks on Mickey will (likely) be the lifeline that keeps the mouse tied to the Mouse forever.
So what does this all mean for $DIS investors?
If you’ll permit me to mix a Disney metaphor, Winnie the Pooh (or Mickey Mouse) entering the public domain is not exactly the clock striking midnight and everything turning back into pumpkins. Disney will be just fine. Annoyed, perhaps — but fine. And, while the courts will ultimately hash all of this out, Disney looks to be in pretty good shape on the Mickey Mouse front with all of their trademarks already in place.
While writing this, Eeyore kept auto-correcting to Eyesore. That donkey can’t catch a break.
Until 2062. Then tread away.
Gallopin’ Gaucho, the second Mickey Mouse animated short, also enters the public domain in 2024.
Which might explain why Disney appears so sanguine over Mickey’s impending copyright expiration.