Walt Disney with a Mickey Mouse drawing from 1931.
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
An early iteration of Mickey Mouse, Disney’s most iconic character, is expected to enter the public domain in January 2024.
The short film “Steamboat Willie” is where the character now known as Mickey Mouse got his start. The cartoon debuted in 1928 and featured a mouse with a pointed nose, long tail and large ears who was wearing shorts. In “Steamboat Willie,” the mouse is in black and white.
As the copyright expiration approaches for “Steamboat Willie,” it’s important to note that Mickey Mouse will only enter the public domain in a narrow way. Later forms of the mouse, including the iconic white-gloved version with red shorts, will still be protected by copyright, according to The New York Times.
Additionally, even though the copyright is expiring, the trademark is not.
“You can use the Mickey Mouse character as it was originally created to create your own Mickey Mouse stories or stories with this character,” Daniel Mayeda, associate director of the Documentary Film Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law, told The Guardian. “But if you do so in a way that people will think of Disney — which is kind of likely because they have been investing in this character for so long — then in theory, Disney could say you violated my trademark.”
What does this all mean?
“Even when Mickey Mouse enters the public domain, don’t expect to see a flood of off-brand Mickey Mouse content anytime soon,” Johns Hopkins Carey Business School business law expert Stacey Lee said.
Disney’s trademark protections are extensive, intellectual property law expert Jane C. Ginsburg told The New York Times. “People glance at those ears and smile and ‘automatically associate it with Disney.’”
Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created Mickey Mouse. Iwerks is credited with drawing the character and Disney was the voice of the anthropomorphic mouse until 1947, per Britannica. The mouse’s original name was Mortimer.
Another beloved childhood character is entering the public domain in 2024: Tigger.
Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2022, because A.A. Milne’s original book was published then. But Tigger did not, since Tigger did not appear in the books until 1928, according to Temple University associate dean for academic affairs Donald P. Harris.
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