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Disney Might Lose the Rights to Two Classic Characters

Author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard’s 1926 book "Winnie-the-Pooh" entered the public domain Jan. 1.

Walt Disney Co.’s  (DIS) - Get Walt Disney Company Report beloved Mickey Mouse, as well as animated characters Winnie the Pooh and others from British author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard’s Pooh books, are beginning to hit the public domain, which should keep Disney’s legal department busy.

The characters from Milne and Shepard’s 1926 “Winnie-the-Pooh” book -- including Pooh, Christopher Robin, Owl, Eeyore, Rabbit Kanga and Roo --  entered the public domain on Jan. 1 after 95 years of copyright protection. Bouncing tiger Tigger, who made his debut in the 1928 book "The House on Pooh Corner", will jump into the public domain when the character's copyright expires Jan. 1, 2024.

Walt Disney's character Mickey Mouse, as depicted in his 1928 short cartoon "Steamboat Willie", will enter the public domain on Jan. 1, 2024.

But these copyright expirations don't necessarily mean it's open season on all Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh knockoffs. Disney still holds the rights to subsequent depictions of Mickey Mouse and all of its versions of the Winnie the Pooh characters, since those specific copyrights have not expired.

However, it does mean that anyone who wants to use the Winnie the Pooh concept artistically or commercially may begin using it as long as they don't infringe on any existing copyrights of the characters Disney still owns.

Some analysts estimate that Disney generates $3 billion to $6 billion in revenue from its Winnie the Pooh products.

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

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Illustrator Luke McGarry, according to the Washington Post, created a color Winnie the Pooh cartoon strip for social media the day after Pooh's copyright expired. The strip depicted Pooh without the red shirt that he is seen wearing in Disney productions.

Disney in 1961 purchased the licensing rights to Winnie the Pooh from Stephen Slesinger Inc. New York television and film producer Stephen Slesinger, who died in 1953, had obtained the rights from Milne in 1930.

Disney released its first Pooh film, "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" in 1966, followed by eight more films and four TV series. 

Since purchasing the licensing rights to Winnie the Pooh, Disney's versions of the Pooh characters have been protected by further copyrights for years to come.    

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 once the "Steamboat Willie" copyright expires, the likeness of that Mickey Mouse version will enter the public domain.

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