While Congress has extended the automatic date of copyright expirations in the past, there is little indication it will do so again. Corporations with 100-year old copyrights, therefore, are at risk of losing the exclusive right to their intellectual property.
In 2024, the earliest renderings of Mickey Mouse will reach the 100-year mark and enter the public domain. This means Disney will no longer have copyright protection for the first incarnation of its most famous brand ambassador. Still, because it is unlikely anyone can use Mickey Mouse’s likeness for commercial purposes, the mouse can teach corporations a valuable lesson.
Copyrights of later versions of intellectual property
A company’s trademark, trade dress and other intellectual property are likely to change over time. While this may not restart the clock on copyright protection, it does put a new starting date on later-created material.
If the earlier work has a strong resemblance to later material, appropriating earlier work that enters the public domain may constitute an infringement on the later and still-protected work. Mickey Mouse’s white gloves are a good illustration of this point. While the earliest versions of Mickey Mouse may be in the public domain, the white gloves still have decades of protection remaining.
Trademarks without expiration dates
A corporation’s copyright on work may have an expiration, but a trademark does not. If the company’s copyrighted work overlaps with its trademarked material, the company may have a valid claim for trademark infringement against junior users. Put simply, if a company’s brand has an inextricable link to its trademark or trade dress, a lack of copyright protection may have no real-world consequences.
Ultimately, unless Congress extends the public domain date for copyrighted materials, corporate leaders may be wise to pursue trademark protection for their valuable intellectual property.