Will Disney Just Watch as Its Assets Slip Away?

When Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) fired Bob Chapek in November and rehired former CEO Bob Iger to take his place, the consensus was that a change had to be made. Chapek took a lot of criticism for losses in the company’s streaming business, and Len Testa, a self-proclaimed “devoted” Disney fan, suggested that Chapek lost his job because “he didn’t believe in the Disney magic.”

One could make a solid case that Disney’s magic comes from its vast stable of characters. Mickey Mouse, the foundation on which the company was built over decades, was first. The addition of other franchises like Star Wars and Marvel has paid massive dividends to its customers and shareholders.

Disney loses its hold on one of its most famous franchises on January 1, 2023, when its copyright on A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” expires and the book enters the public domain. The Mouse House acquired the rights to Pooh in 2001. Under U.S. copyright law, any work published before the end of 1926 loses copyright protection on New Year’s Day.

Winnie the Pooh was the third most valuable media franchise in the world as of January 2021, tied with Mickey Mouse at $80.3 billion. Star Wars, valued at $68.7 billion, was right behind in fifth place, while Disney’s Princess franchise ranked sixth with a value of $46.4 billion. The Marvel Cinematic Universe finished eighth with a value of $35.3 billion.

The loss of copyright protection only applies to Milne’s book, published in 1926. That means that anyone using the book to create a new project does not have to pay Disney a dime.

Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, told Quartz that Disney will retain the rights to Pooh books published after 1926, “as well as the trademark to the words ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ in branded books and products,” among other things.

When Disney faced a similar expiration of its copyright on the original Mickey Mouse cartoon in 1976, the company successfully lobbied for a change in copyright law that protected the character through 2003. With that deadline looming, a second change to U.S. copyright law was pushed through Congress in 1998 by the late Sonny Bono, extending copyright protection on “Steamboat Willie,” Walt Disney’s original animated cartoon, for 95 years from its original date.

Disney’s copyright on “Steamboat Willie” expires on January 1, 2024, just one year from now. At that point, according to the Cardozo Law blog, Steamboat Willie enters the public domain. As with Pooh, Disney will not lose its trademark protection on Mickey Mouse-branded cartoons and swag, but anyone wanting to create, for example, an NFT of Steamboat Willie has free rein.

According to Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, other well-known copyrighted material entering the public domain next week include Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and T. E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” (the basis for the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”); sound recordings by Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters and Enrico Caruso; and movies including F.W. Murnau’s “Faust” and “The Temptress” starring Greta Garbo.

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