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July 10, 2023

The Copyright Expires: The Original Mickey Mouse is Entering the Public Domain in 2024

Every year on January 1, works protected under copyright law enter into the public domain due to their copyright protection expiring. Thus, as a new year approaches, those in the field of copyright look to see which works will expire at the end of the year. As the world entered January 2023, many excitedly anticipated that Disney’s copyright protection of Mickey Mouse in the United States (US) would expire at the end of 2023, allowing Mickey Mouse to enter the public domain as of January 1, 2024. This means that Mickey Mouse can be reproduced, adapted, published, publicly performed, and publicly displayed by anyone in the United States without infringing upon Disney’s copyright.

Mickey Mouse was introduced to the world in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie.

The copyright on the 1928 movie Steamboat Willie – the short film that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse – will expire in 2024. That means the Steamboat-Willie-version of Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain. That means everybody in the public has the ability to use that creation for their own interpretations, their own versions.

To be clear, it’s only the version of Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie that anyone in the public can use without permission to create new stories and new art. That Mickey Mouse has a long rat-like black nose, basic oval eyes with no pupils and a long, spindly, curvy black tail. Any future iterations of Mickey Mouse – including any showing Mickey Mouse in color – are still under Disney’s control.

But the copyright on the Steamboat-Willie-version will run out in 2024 after 95 years. Initially, copyrights only lasted 28 years. But, due in large part to Disney’s lobbying and legal efforts, copyrights were first extended to 75 years, then later to 95 years. Yet now that 95-year protection is about to run out on Steamboat Willie.

Walt Disney with his main character Mickey Mouse.

Although the original Mickey Mouse’s copyright protection will expire at the end of 2023, Disney will still be able to protect the Mickey Mouse brand through trademark law. Mickey Mouse is protected as Disney’s property because it is a registered trademark. Trademark protection can theoretically last forever if Disney can continually show that Mickey Mouse is associated with its company. Disney will likely be able to continually show an association with Mickey Mouse.

In 2007, Walt Disney Animation Studios redesigned its logo to incorporate the original version of Mickey Mouse. Therefore, although someone may use the original version of Mickey Mouse in a work, they are not able to use this version of Mickey Mouse for any branding purposes or any purpose that would cause consumers to be confused about the source of the Mickey Mouse product. These intersections between trademark and copyright law may stop Mickey from strolling into public use for the coming years.

What happens with Mickey Mouse will also serve as a beta test for future copyright expirations. Versions of Disney characters Pluto and Donald Duck will enter the public domain soon after the first version of Mickey Mouse.


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