Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too? Those famous Disney characters and many more are set to enter the public domain next year, bringing to light the issues of intellectual property and copyright protection.
Disney’s Iconic Characters in Public Domain
The company will soon lose control of some of their most loved characters—Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Piglet—that appeared in A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh books. These are iconic characters that are part of Disney’s enormous success, with millions of fans worldwide. The earliest stories were first published in 1926, which means that Disney loses control of those characters in 2022, when they enter the public domain.
The Mouse Protection Act
Generally, U.S. copyright law protects intellectual property for as long as the author lives plus 70 years, though there are exceptions. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 covers “works for hire,” protecting a company’s copyright for 120 years after creation or 95 years from its first publication, whichever ends first.
Following multiple campaigns to protect one of the most recognizable characters in the world, Disney lobbied Congress for this extension—dubbed “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”—and won.
The Profit-Making Pooh
In 1961, Disney acquired the Winnie-the-Pooh book and character rights from Milne’s estate and turned them into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. The Winnie the Pooh franchise is among the most lucrative for Disney, with total revenue through the years exceeding $80 billion. This puts Pooh about even with Mickey Mouse. It’s estimated that the company currently generates $3-6 billion annually from Pooh and company.
Disney’s Winnie the Pooh Rights
In 2022, the company will no longer be able to sue if someone uses Winnie-the-Pooh stories from Milne’s books as inspiration, or if they adapt the bear character for an original creative project. E.H. Shepard’s line drawings from the books can also be used. However, Disney can bring a lawsuit against anyone that attempts to use Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh and the characters it trademarked, which were based on Milne’s stories. They also retain the rights to post-1926 books and characters from the series. This includes Tigger, who was introduced in 1928.
Disney may also be able to get the Winnie the Pooh copyright extended, though legal experts say it’s a long shot. This isn’t the first time that the company tried to revise copyright rules for their characters, and whether they’re successful has future implications. Steamboat Willie, the first introduction of Mickey Mouse, was released in 1928, which means that copyright protections expire in two years.