|There was just a lengthy article on this on one of the comics news sites in relation to the recent court decision on the subject. Here's the relevant quote:|
3. So what happens when the copyright expires - can anyone do, say, a Mickey Mouse cartoon?
The copyright laws provide the owners of copyright with a bundle of exclusive rights, including the right to copy a work, to create derivative works, and to sell copies of the works. Once the copyright expires, and the work enters the public domain, anyone can exercise any of these previously exclusive rights. So had the “Steamboat Willie” cartoon entered the public domain, anyone could make copies of the cartoon, sell the cartoon, show the cartoon at a film festival, etc., without permission and without having to pay Disney for the rights.
But things get a little tricky because Disney still owns the MICKEY MOUSE(R) trademark and, unlike copyrights, the trademark can be kept alive indefinitely as long as it is in use. So you might be able to create and sell copies of the “Steamboat Willie” cartoon, but you could be stopped from marketing the cartoon as “a MICKEY MOUSE(R) video”. Similarly, when Superman enters the public domain, anyone could reprint the public domain works, but could not create and sell new comic books under the title “SUPERMAN”(R), as that trademark is owned by AOL/Time Warner.