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Why Isn't Mickey Mouse in the Public Domain?

Image from the Patent and Trademark Museum. Roger Richards/The Washington Times/Landov

From his humble beginnings as a steamboat stowaway to his current gig as the Magic Kingdom’s most famous resident, Mickey Mouse has worked a lot of jobs. He even moonlights as the poster rodent for copyright protection.

In 1998, Mickey scampered to Capitol Hill when a bill proposing a 20-year extension of U.S. copyright limits was brought before the Senate. Under the planned revisions, corporations (for example: the Walt Disney Company) would retain exclusive rights to original characters and content for a period of 95 years. The previous limit, set in 1973, guaranteed rights for just 75 years. (The changes would also affect works created by individuals, protecting them for an additional 70 years following the death of their author, up from 50 years in 1973.)

Make Your Case

Opponents of the bill argued that such extensions would make it arbitrarily more difficult to legitimately procure older items that, according to previous laws, should long since have passed into the public domain. The new terms, it was said, threatened to tamper not only free speech, but cultural and scientific advancement as well.

Proponents argued that the extensions bolstered free thinking by encouraging people to create new works, rather than appropriate the works of others.

In any event, two more decades of exclusive rights meant potential billions to the Disney corporation, and Mickey wasn’t afraid to break out his claws to guarantee they got them. In fact, the company’s lobbying efforts were so extensive, the bill is often referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

Thanks in large part to Disney’s efforts, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (named to posthumously honor Cher’s former babe, the U.S. Congressman from California) was eventually signed into law.

Why the Big Push in 1998?

The mousetrap was about to snap shut on the Walt Disney Company.

Under the previous copyright timeline, Mickey Mouse (or, anyway, his earliest incarnation: a gloveless boating enthusiast from the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie) was set to enter the public domain in 2003. This meant that one of pop culture’s most visible icons — according to the company, 98% of the world’s children between the ages of 3 and 11 display some awareness of Mickey — was about to become freely available for anyone to use.

Interestingly, 1998 wasn’t the first time Steamboat Willie came close to becoming Free Willie, only to have copyright laws extended at the last moment; it’s happened on at least four occasions. The past two instances of copyright term extensions, in particular, have occurred just as Willie was about to sail into the public domain.

The irony of the situation is that the original Steamboat Willie cartoon was itself a direct parody of a 1928 live-action silent film titled Steamboat Bill, Jr., now freely available in the public domain.

In other words: Steamboat Bill is up for grabs, but the cartoon he inspired is off the table.

Providing a bizarre footnote to the copyright issue is a theory put forth by some scholars that suggests the earliest incarnations of Mickey's copyright laws are technically void, meaning that the original Mickey from Steamboat Willie could, in fact, already be part of the public domain. The notion, which Disney disputes, stems from an ambiguity in the opening credits of the 1928 Steamboat Willie film. While legal precedents suggest the claims of invalid copyright might, in fact, be legitimate, the only way to test the theory would be for someone to dare take on Disney's billion dollar legal shotgun – the financial equivalent of playing Russian roulette.

Disney and the Daycare Centers

Although the Walt Disney name is synonymous with wholesome family entertainment, Disney didn’t become the world’s largest media conglomerate by playing nice. In fact, the company has a history of mercilessly pursuing (and suing) anyone who uses their intellectual property without permission.

A famous example of Disney’s cutthroat approach to brand control occurred in 1989, when the company threatened to sue the owners of three Florida daycare centers who had decorated their buildings’ walls with unauthorized images of several trademarked Disney characters. The issue never made it to court, as the owners of the centers voluntarily painted new murals, featuring Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, over the Disney designs. (Universal Studios swooped in to volunteer the use of Scooby-Doo and Fred Flintstone’s likenesses after news of the Disney debacle spread.)

Of course, even without the copyright extensions, it would still be next to impossible for anyone outside of Disney to use Mickey without permission, since he, like all Disney creations, is trademarked. Unlike copyrights, which do have dates of expiration, company trademarks are valid for as long as the company uses those trademarked items commercially. As long as Disney keeps Mickey on their employment roster, no one else can touch him.

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science
What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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25 Dapper Outfit Choices for Fashionable Pets
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Lavishing your furry friends with adorable attire is a benefit of pet ownership that they don't mention on the adoption forms. Whether you prefer practical clothing like sweaters and jackets or statement pieces like bow ties and tutus, these dapper duds are perfect for a howl-iday or "gotcha day" gift, or simply for saying, "Who's the cutest little pupper in pajamas? You are!"

1. CASHMERE DOG SWEATER; FROM $165

dog in sweater
Canine Styles

This classic cable-knit cashmere sweater is a sophisticated look for Fido or Finn. Get it from Canine Styles, a luxury dog emporium in New York City that has plenty of posh and preppy outfits.

Find It: Canine Styles

2. TOGGLE DOG COAT; $85

dog in coat
Canine Styles

This toggle coat (available in orange, navy, and tan) is as fashionable as it is warm. Made of Melton wool, it has Velcro closures to make getting dressed easy. It's great for long walks in the country.

Find It: Canine Styles

3. DOG TUXEDO; FROM $90

Dog in tuxedo
Etsy

This satin tuxedo is perfect for the canine members of your wedding party, though it will brighten up any other occasion as well. The custom, handmade outfit comes complete with a snappy bow tie.

Find It: Etsy

4. DOG BELLE DRESS; FROM $45

Dog Belle Dress
Etsy

The queen of your castle can feel like a Disney princess in her very own version of Belle's iconic yellow dress from Beauty and the Beast. This ball gown is made from yellow crepe satin with chiffon overlay on the bodice and features hand-painted gold detailing on the skirt. Enchanted rose not included.

Find It: Etsy

5. POODLE SKIRT OUTFIT FOR DOGS; $26

Rubies Pink Fifties Girl Pet Costume
Amazon

What if you could buy a 1950s poodle skirt for your poodle? This retro dress is comprised of a pink poodle skirt, striped bodice, and sequined belt, and comes with a bow headband.

Find It: Amazon

6. RIBBED CROCHET BUNNY SWEATER; $25

bunny in a sweater
Etsy

Your snuggle-bunny will look like a little fancy-pants in this ribbed crochet sweater. Choose from seven colors, including this dashing deep red.

Find It: Etsy

7. BESPOKE MONOGRAM DOG SWEATER; FROM $155

Dog in sweater
Ruby Rufus

Bespoke clothing isn't just for humans: British luxury dog clothing brand Ruby Rufus will make your pooch a custom monogram sweater made with 100 percent Italian cashmere. You can even order it in your dog's favorite color.

Find It: Ruby Rufus

8. HOT PINK DOG TUTU; $17

Dog in hot pink tutu
Etsy

Tutus look absolutely adorable on tiny humans and animals alike. If your pooch wants to get in touch with its inner ballerina, then grab this hot pink number from Etsy. Rave reviews are a sure thing.

Find It: Etsy

9. PINK DOG POLO SHIRT; $35

Dog Pink Polo Shirt
Canine Styles

This pink polo shirt is perfect for your preppy fur baby. It features not one but a veritable multitude of crocodiles. They'll be the most dapper dog at the country club.

Find It: Canine Styles

10. DOG BARN COAT WITH BROWN CORDUROY COLLAR; $85

Dog in barn coat
Canine Styles

When it's time for a walk, your dog will look effortlessly chic in this fancy barn coat. It comes in navy, cranberry, orange, hot pink, and loden and features convenient pockets for anyone with opposable thumbs.

Find It: Canine Styles

11. WHITE PET NECK RUFF; $26

Pet Neck Ruff
Etsy

Your canine or kitty will look like their painting belongs in London's National Portrait Gallery with this Elizabethan neck ruff.

Find It: Etsy

12. CHICKEN SWEATER; $25

chicken wearing sweater
Etsy

Chickens can get cold when they're strutting around outside. A sweater (well, more like sweater vest) for your bird can also help prevent feather picking during molting season. Or, it can simply keep them warm while they stare pensively across a snowy landscape.

Find It: Etsy

13. PET CIRCLE SCARF; $15

dog in scarf
Etsy

An infinity scarf is a perfect burst of color on a dreary early morning walk. The proprietor of Mitten Made on Etsy originally designed this wool snood for her miniature Dachshund to help keep her warm during the long, cold winters in Michigan.

Find It: Etsy

14. FAB DOG TRAVEL RAINCOAT; FROM $18

Fab Dog Travel Raincoat
Chewy

This timeless yellow rain slicker will look great on any puppy when it's raining cats and dogs. It's made of 100 percent waterproof nylon shell that keeps fur dry. Bonus: It's perfect for an It Halloween costume.

Find It: Chewy

15. LACE CAT OR DOG COLLAR; FROM $10

cat in lace collar
Etsy

This handmade, white lace collar is a must-have for fancy felines. It's also embellished with a large rhinestone.

Find It: Etsy

16. FITWARM PENGUIN PAJAMAS FOR DOGS; FROM $10

Fitwarm Cute Penguin Xmas Dog Pajamas
Amazon

Keep your pupper warm on cold winter nights with these penguin PJs. They're great for doggie sleepovers or lazy weekends on the couch watching Netflix.

Find It: Amazon

17. PLAID CASHMERE DOG COAT; FROM $225

dog in plaid coat
Canine Styles

Your dog will look like a proper gentleman in this smart plaid peacoat. This fine garment is made of cashmere with a faux fur lining and leather buttons, and is a perfect shield against chill and fog.

Find It: Canine Styles

18. SATIN PET BOW TIE; FROM $8

Satin Bow Tie for Dog
Etsy

This satin doggie bow tie is perfect for any occasion. It comes in several colors and features a Velcro fastener that makes it easy to attach to a collar. Plus, 10 percent of every sale goes to charity: specifically to SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and Feeding Pets of the Homeless.

Find It: Etsy

19. RED DOG DRESS; FROM $34

dog in dress
Etsy

Your good boy or girl will look red carpet-ready in this elegant gown. The voluminous tulle skirt is to die for, and each bow is embellished with beads. Custom orders are also available.

Find It: Etsy

20. DOG TIE; FROM $13

Dog tie
Etsy

Your pooch will be ready to stun at any black tie event. This tie is designed like a collar, making it easy to dress your four-legged friend. This Etsy store gives back: 10 perfect of all sales are donated to an animal protection association.

Find It: Etsy

21. NAUTICAL DOG DRESS WITH MATCHING LEASH; $20

Dog sailor dress
BaxterBoo

Perfect for a day on the town or setting sail in a schooner, this is the sailor outfit you never knew your best furry friend needed. This vintage throwback also comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

22. TARTAN FLANNEL PET BOW TIE; $5.50

tartan pet bow tie
Etsy

Your dog or cat will turn heads in this flannel tartan bow tie. It has a convenient elastic loop that slides over your pup's collar.

Find It: Etsy

23. PUCCI DOG SHIRT; $23

dog in Pucci dog shirt
Etsy

Only the fanciest dogs wear, err, Pucci. Grab this punny "designer" t-shirt for your pup. This high-quality cotton statement piece is perfect for small breeds.

Find It: Etsy

24. PINK POLKA DOT AND LACE DOG HARNESS DRESS; $20

Pink Polka Dot and Lace Designer Dog Harness Dress
BaxterBoo

This feminine pink polka dot dress is simply adorable. It features a convenient built-in harness and comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

25. PET SWEATER VEST; $6

pet sweater vest
Amazon

Your dog or cat will look like an erudite Oxford professor in this sweater vest. Note that the button on the pocket is shaped like a bone.

Find It: Amazon

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