As of yesterday, Steamboat Willie is in the public domain. The 1928 short film that launched Mickey Mouse pretty much served as the foundation for everything we know as Disney today.
Copyright rules differ from country to country. Works pass into the public domain at pre-defined points. In the UK, this generally happens 70 years after the last creator’s death, depending on legal restrictions such as Will issues. In the US, this is governed by the United States Copyright Office and is more restrictive and arbitrary.
All works first published or released in the United States before January 1, 1929, have lost their copyright protection, effective January 1, 2024. In the same manner, works published in 1929 will enter the public domain as of January 1, 2025, and this cycle will repeat until works published in 1977 enter the public domain on January 1, 2073.
So alongside Steamboat Willie, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, and Tigger from AA Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner are also now in the public domain as of yesterday.
This is not a free-for-all all on Mickey Mouse, though. Only the Steamboat Willie version. Disney and its customary fleet of lawyers have made it absolutely clear that the more modern character in gloves, with that voice and trademark smile are exactly that – still trademark. They gave a warning via Deadline:
“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.
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, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”
Copyright expires, but trademarks do not. Mickey Mouse himself is a trademark.
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