On January 1, 2024, “Steamboat Willie,” and consequently the characters of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, will enter the public domain. In the past, Disney pushed for extended copyright laws to keep Mickey under their control, but they have finally given up and are letting the mice — at least as they first appeared — free.
A Disney spokesperson said in a statement to 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.”
The spokesperson continued, “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,” they added, “continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.”
Mickey’s design and personality have evolved over the years, and he has appeared in hundreds of different outfits in media and at Disney Parks. For now, only Mickey and Minnie as they appeared in “Steamboat Willie,” as well as “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” (both released in late 1928) are entering the public domain. So anyone hoping to make their own Mickey Mouse movie wouldn’t be able to put him in his “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” garb from “Fantasia,” for example.
“Plane Crazy,” the first Mickey film produced, was released after “Steamboat Willie” and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” in 1929, so remains under copyright until 2025.
Disney also still holds a trademark for Mickey as a symbol of their brand, meaning no other companies can start using a Mickey head logo although they could make Mickey-related media. As long as a trademark is still in use, it never expires.
The Disney spokesperson said the company “will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”
The copyright law keeping Mickey out of the public domain is sometimes called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, but other companies were also pushing for extended copyright alongside Disney. The law currently allows copyright to be held for 95 years.
Tigger from the original “Winnie the Pooh” novels will also enter the public domain in 2024 as he was first introduced in the second “Winnie the Pooh” book, “The House at Pooh Corner,” in 1928. After the other characters entered public domain, the infamous horror film “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” was released early this year. The Disney versions of “Winnie the Pooh” characters remain protected, so while a bouncing tiger named Tigger could appear in upcoming horror flicks, he couldn’t look the same as he does in animated Disney films.
Mickey’s predecessor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, entered the public domain in January 2023. Just before that, Disney released their first Oswald cartoon in 95 years, ensuring they retained some copyright protections on the character.