As of 2024, the original Mickey Mouse, one of the most iconic characters in entertainment history, has entered the public domain. This transition marks a significant moment for creators, fans, the entertainment industry and the implications for intellectual property law.
We look at the implications this will have on various areas.
The Journey of the Original Mickey Mouse to Public Domain
The original Mickey Mouse, created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, made his first appearance in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928. This marked the beginning of a long and storied history for both the character and The Walt Disney Company. For decades, Mickey Mouse has been synonymous with Disney, serving as its official mascot and playing a central role in the company’s branding and merchandise.
Under the U.S. Copyright Term Extension Act (which was heavily influenced by Mickey himself, even being nicknamed the Mickey Mouse Act), works enter the public domain 95 years after their publication or creation, unless the copyright is renewed or extended. In Mickey’s case, his copyright was extended multiple times, but finally, as of 2024, the original depiction of Mickey Mouse as seen in “Steamboat Willie” has entered the public domain.
Implications for Creators and Disney
The entry of the original Mickey Mouse into the public domain means that creators can now theoretically use the original version of Mickey Mouse without seeking permission or paying licensing fees to Disney. This could open a myriad of possibilities for artists, filmmakers, and writers to re-imagine or incorporate this iconic character into new works.
It was even revealed shortly after the original character entered the public domain that a horror film will be released this year featuring the likeness of the original Mickey Mouse called Mickey’s Mouse Trap.
However, it’s important to note that while the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse is now public domain, many subsequent versions and iterations of the character are still under copyright. Disney also retains trade mark rights on Mickey Mouse, which means the character’s use in commercial ventures may still be subject to legal considerations.
It’s expected that Disney will continue to fiercely protect its remaining copyrights and trade marks related to Mickey Mouse, including the character’s later versions and distinctive branding elements. A Disney spokesperson explained how the company views the iconic character:
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 by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, 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.
The End of An Era or Creative Expansion?
The entry of the original Mickey Mouse into the public domain is a landmark event in the history of copyright law and entertainment. It offers an unprecedented opportunity for creative expression and reinterpretation of a character that has been a cornerstone of American culture. As we move forward, it will be fascinating to see how creators worldwide embrace this opportunity and how Disney adapts to this new era for its most famous creation. There is no doubt that Disney will remain dedicated to protecting the mousey mascot’s integrity due to it being intertwined with the company’s brand. However, it seems inevitable that creators will be seizing this opportunity to re-imagine the original Mickey Mouse and possibly leverage the popularity the character has built for nearly a decade.