January 1, 2019 was a big day in the world of copyright law. In order to understand why, I’ll need to give you some backstory.

Back in 1998, there were a number of corporations – Disney being the most notable – petitioning Congress to extend the duration of copyright terms. They did have some good arguments – the U.S. had a shorter copyright term than most of the rest of the world, so an extension would put them on an even keel with their trading partners. And it would be terrible to let Mickey Mouse’s copyright expire.

The corporations won Congress over, and they passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act – also known as the Micky Mouse Act. This added an additional 20 years to all copyrights in the United States.

Adding 20 years to all copyrights had a significant side effect – since all copyrights got an extension, that meant that no copyrights were expiring. Nothing has been entering the public domain[1] for the last 20 years. That is, until January 1, 2019.

2018 marked the end of the 20-year hiatus on copyright expirations. Starting in 2019, copyrights will again start to expire, releasing oodles of new material for today’s artists and entertainers to use for inspiration. To make things easier to track, Congress has set January 1 of the year after the final year of coverage as the expiration date for all copyrights. So, on January 1 of 2019, all the copyrights for the year 1923 entered the public domain and became freely available for anyone to use. On January 1 of 2020, all the copyrights for the year 1924 will enter the public domain. Copyrights from 1925 will expire on January 1 of 2021, and so on and so forth. Things will get very interesting when Mickey’s copyright expires on January 1 of 2024.

This is great news for anyone in the business of creativity. They now have a fresh source of material they can adapt, borrow or build off of to create their own works. And they will continue to get more fresh material for years to come.

Just don’t start using Mickey Mouse in your creative works. His copyright hasn’t expired just yet, and Disney has had 20 years to figure out how to keep him protected after it’s gone.

For more information, you can check out this article (link here), or you can email me at kaway@kawaylaw.com.

[1] Public domain – lawyer-speak for “all creative works that are not protected by copyright.” “Public domain” sounds more obscure, but it’s easier to say.