Disney Could Lose Iconic Character Rights Over Politics

Copyright protection for one of Disney’s iconic characters is set to expire soon without an extension from Congress.

Walt Disney  (DIS) – Get Walt Disney Company Report CEO Bob Chapek’s criticism of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill  — better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — which Florida Gov. Rob DeSantis signed into law on March 28, has created a political firestorm between Disney and Republicans that could jeopardize the Mouse House’s copyright protection of one of its most prized images.

The new Florida law prohibits classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade.

After receiving criticism from employees for not taking a position against the bill, HB 1557, when proposed in the Florida legislature, Chapek on March 7 sent a memo to employees stating Disney’s “unwavering commitment to the LGBTQ+ community,” according to Variety.

Getty Images/TS

Shutting Political Donation Spigot

While the bill was still pending on March 11, Disney suspended political donations while it reviews its political contributions so its “advocacy better reflects our values,” according to a Politico report. The Republican war against Disney will probably hit them in the pocketbook, as the company donated $913,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in the 2020 election cycle and $586,000 to Republican Senate campaigns.

Chapek and Disney’s support for the LGBTQ community and criticism of the law caused backlash from Republican inside and outside of Florida.

In April, DeSantis signed a law that would end Disney’s special tax district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, on June 1, 2023. The special district was created for the company in 1967 that gave it special tax status and privileges as its own town.

Then on May 10, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced legislation, the Copyright Clause Restoration Act, that would strip “woke corporations like Disney of special copyright protections.” The bill would limit new copyright protections to 56 years and make the change retroactive to copyrights that have been extended past their original copyright expiration, according to a statement from Hawley.

The law would also delay implementation for certain license holders, to reasonably protect pre-existing contracts, the statement said. It did not elaborate on which “certain license holders” would benefit from this provision.

Even Tesla  (TSLA) – Get Tesla Inc Report CEO Elon Musk, who has revealed he is a big Republican supporter, has expressed his support for reducing the length of copyright protections in a May 12 tweet: “Current copyright law in general goes absurdly far beyond protecting the original creator,” he tweeted in a reply to Slashdot in regards to Harley’s legislation to strip Disney of its copyright protections.

However, the chances of Hawley’s bill passing in the U.S. Senate are slim to none with Democrats currently controlling the Senate, not to mention the White House and House of Representatives as well, along with the difficulty of obtaining 60 Senate votes to move such legislation to a vote. His bill is mere political grandstanding.

Current copyright law protects authors’ and artists’ work until 70 years after the creator’s death and for 95 years for corporate creations.

Copyright Extension Time Running Out

Disney’s problem will be with extending the copyright it currently has for its original Mickey Mouse character who appeared in the 1928 short cartoon “Steamboat Willie.” That character will enter the public domain when its copyright expires Jan. 1, 2024. Disney still holds the rights to subsequent depictions of Mickey Mouse.

Since the original black and white “Steamboat Willie” debuted, Mickey Mouse’s appearance has evolved over the years, starting the 95-year copyright clock ticking with each new look. But “Steamboat Willie’s” copyright clock might be running out.

Because of the evenly divided U.S. Senate, it might be difficult for Disney to obtain the votes needed for legislation to extend its copyright past Jan. 1, 2024. The Republicans really don’t have to do anything for the copyright protection to expire on that date.

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