Mickey Mouse Enters the Public Domain as US Copyright Expires

The iconic character, Mickey Mouse, takes a step into the public domain as the copyright for the early version featured in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie expires on January 1, 2024.

Mickey Mouse Enters the Public Domain as US Copyright Expires

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The animated short film, directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, holds a special place in cinematic history as the animation that propelled Disney’s fortunes and laid the foundation for a global entertainment empire.

The expiration of the copyright, based on the 95-year limit set by US copyright law, means that the original black and white version of Mickey and Minnie Mouse featured in Steamboat Willie is now open for creative exploration without the need for permission or cost.

This freedom allows artists, cartoonists, and creators to reimagine, repurpose, and share the earliest versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

The characters’ images, once carefully guarded under copyright protection, are now part of the public domain.

But the expiration of the copyright applies specifically to the 1928 versions seen in Steamboat Willie. Disney has issued a reminder that more modern iterations of Mickey Mouse, including those from later films like Fantasia, remain under copyright protection.

Originally, the characters were expected to enter the public domain in 1984, but Congress extended the copyright term by 20 years.

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Another extension occurred in 2004, maintaining Disney’s control over the beloved characters. The legal battles and extensions even led to the nickname the Mickey Mouse Protection Act for the copyright extension efforts.

Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Duke Centre for the Study of the Public Domain, describes this moment as deeply symbolic and long-awaited.

The lies not only in the liberation of these characters but also in Disney’s perceived role in influencing copyright term extensions to protect its properties.

While the copyright for the early Mickey Mouse expires, Disney maintains a separate trademark on Mickey as a brand identifier and corporate mascot.

This means that, the public domain status, there are still limits on how the images can be used. For instance, selling merchandise featuring Mickey and Minnie could lead to trademark issues if consumers are misled into thinking they are Disney products.

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Jack Kendall, a digital content creator and Disney enthusiast, speculates on creative ventures, suggesting that someone might give Mickey and Minnie the horror movie treatment.

However, he acknowledges Disney’s use of trademarked versions in merchandise, animated shorts, and logos as a strategy to safeguard against unauthorized use and legal challenges.

As the public gains access to the 1928 Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the possibilities are vast. Artists may explore new narratives, reimagine the characters in different settings, or pay homage to the origins of Disney animation.

While some anticipate a surge in creative adaptations, others believe that the most recognizable and trademarked version of Mickey Mouse will continue to play a role in Disney’s storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.

The expiration of the copyright for Steamboat Willie is a milestone, but Disney’s active protection of its brand ensures that certain uses of Mickey Mouse remain subject to trademark regulations.

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