After 95 years, the earliest iteration of Disney’s iconic mascot, Mickey Mouse, will enter public domain for the very first time.
That’s right, as of January 1st, 2024, the early, rudimentary version of Mickey Mouse that first appeared in 1928’s Steamboat Willie will become public domain, meaning that it will be available to use in new, non-Disney settings. Joining him will be early versions of Minnie Mouse (who also appeared in Steamboat Willie) and Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger (who appeared in 1928’s The House at Pooh Corner), who will each see their copyrights expire as well.
As some legal experts have already pointed out, though, this likely won’t be as cut-and-dry as it appears. Disney has been famously protective over their copyrights, even leading to the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act to be nicknamed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” In keeping with that tradition, even as the Steamboat Willie technically enters public domain, there could possibly be some litigation coming up that will help define the limits of what is, and what is not, allowed with the newly-public character.
For example, the version of Mickey that is losing its copyright is non-speaking, meaning that any speaking version of the character could possibly land in a murky legal area for its similarity with later versions. Furthermore, there is a law in place that will forbid any non-Disney iterations of the character from fooling audiences into thinking it was created by Disney.
“We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright,” a Disney spokesperson told the Associated Press. “Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products. That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires. More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected… and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.”
Considering that US copyrights can last for nearly a century, there isn’t much precedent for an internationally-beloved media symbol like Mickey Mouse becoming public domain. We can, though, look to Winnie the Pooh, who entered public domain in January 2022. Earlier this year, the horror film, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey arrived, and now, an R-rated adaptation following Christopher Robin as a strung-out 20-something is in the works.
Could the Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse get the same treatment as the murderous Winnie the Pooh did? Maybe. Either way, John Oliver and his team are surely excited to begin using their new mascot.