Tech & Sourcing @ Morgan Lewis


For many companies with identifiable characters, preserving and extending their copyright protections is a top priority. As of January 1, 2024, several famous works have lost their copyright protection and entered into the public domain.

The right to copyright is set forth in the United States Constitution, which provides that Congress shall have the power to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing a limited time for authors and inventors to have exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries. U.S. Const. art. 1, § 8, cl. 8. A copyright achieves this by giving authors of original works fixed in a tangible medium of expression, or those who hire someone to create an original work for them as a work made for hire, the exclusive authority to copy and distribute such work.

Protected works can include paintings, photographs, illustrations, sound recordings, musical compositions, computer programs, books, movies, architectural works, and more. A copyright survives for the life of the author, plus 70 years after their death if the work was originally created by the author. A copyright created as a work for hire will remain protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. After that time, the work enters the public domain and is no longer afforded exclusive protection.

Although a copyright exists automatically once a work of original authorship is fixed, a copyright owner can register their work or the work made for hire with the United States Copyright Office to enhance their protections. Registration allows the owner to have their copyright on the public record, which would provide infringers with record notice of the existence of such copyright. It would also make any future litigation more efficient, as a valid copyright would already be established and there would be no proof requirement beyond the registration. Further, timely registration allows the owner to be eligible to recover statutory damages and attorney fees in the case of a successful litigation.

To register their work, an owner, or an agent acting on behalf of the owner, must fill out an application through the US Copyright Office’s electronic website and send the required deposit copies to the Copyright Office. The deposit requirement varies depending on the type and format of the work and whether the work is being registered pre- or post-publication. After the Copyright Office approves the application, the owner will be issued a certificate of registration.

The works that entered the public domain as of January 1 include famous characters, such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse as depicted in Steamboat Willie, Peter Pan, and Tigger. These works, published in 1928, were originally set to enter the public domain in 2004, but this was delayed by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended protection for works published before January 1, 1978 to a total of 95 years. Pub. L. No. 105-298, 112 Stat. 2827 (1998). As more works expire in the coming years, it will be interesting to see how companies with identifiable characters respond to their works entering the public domain.