Mickey Mouse Enters the Public Domain

steamboat willie

January 1 every year is celebrated by some as “public domain day.” Works first published in 1928 (and sound recordings from 1923) enter the public domain on this day.

Works published earlier were already in the public domain.

As the US Copyright Office explains,

The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.

As Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain explains,

Some material is born in the public domain. This includes ideas, facts, and raw data, which can never be copyrighted. It also includes official works of the US government such as legislation, legal opinions, and NASA images. But for copyrighted culture, the public domain arrives only after a long wait. Why celebrate? When works go into the public domain, they can legally be shared, without permission or fee. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can perform the music publicly, without paying licensing fees. Online repositories such as the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, Google Books, and the New York Public Library can make works fully available online. This helps enable access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history.

As the Duke Center notes,

This year’s [public domain] highlights include Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman and Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, and a trove of sound recordings from 1923. And, of course, 2024 marks the long-awaited arrival of Steamboat Willie – featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse – into the public domain.

The stage version of Peter Pan also enters the public domain this year. (For a full list of titles, provided by the New York Times, see here.)

Mickey and Minnie first appeared in the black-and-white animated short film Steamboat Willie in 1928. The look of the characters has evolved over the years. More recent versions of Mickey have bigger ears, eyes with pupils, and different shorts.

Disney (which owned Steamboat Willie and continues to own later Mickey Mouse films) was one of the companies pushing for the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, which added another 20 years of protection for many copyrighted works.

The New York Times noted back in 1998,

Under present law, a work of art is protected for the lifetime of the artist plus 50 years. Works copyrighted before 1978 or copyrighted by corporations, like many Disney cartoons, are protected for 75 years from the date of the original copyright. Thus, for instance, Mickey Mouse, copyrighted by Disney in 1928, is scheduled to go into the public domain in the year 2004. The copyright extension bill, which passed the House of Representatives this week, would add 20 years to the present law.

Some critics referred to the Act as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

Copyright law in the US is based on the US Constitution.

Article I Section 8 | Clause 8 says that Congress shall have power “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

The first US copyright law, in 1790, guaranteed copyright protection for 14 years from publication of a work. Copyright could be renewed for another 14 years.

In 1831, the term was extended to 28 years, renewable for 14 years.

In 1909, the initial term of 28 years was renewable for 28 years.

In 1976, the renewable period was extended to 47 years for a total copyright term of 75 years.

Once the copyright term expires, a work is said to be in the public domain. That means that anyone (and not just the original copyright owner) is free to exercise the rights that were previously exclusive to the copyright holder during the term of copyright.

As the US Copyright Office explains, these are the rights to

  • Reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords.
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work.
  • Distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending.
  • Perform the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
  • Display the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. This right also applies to the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
  • Perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission if the work is a sound recording.

Copyright law also allows the owner of copyright to sell the copyright or to authorize others to exercise these rights.

Disney has been very diligent about protecting its intellectual property (IP). As an article from the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School noted,

Disney “once forced a Florida day care center to remove an unauthorized Minnie Mouse mural” and told a stonemason that “carving Winnie-the-Pooh into a child’s gravestone would violate its copyright.”

A.A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner (introducing the Tigger character) also enters the public domain this year. The original Winnie the Pooh book, and the character of Pooh himself, entered the public domain earlier, leading to the low-budget horror movie Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, released in early 2023. The sequel – perhaps featuring Tigger – is scheduled for February 2024.

(Disney continues to own the movie version of Pooh, as distinct from the book version.)

At least two horror movies starring Mickey Mouse have already been announced.

However, a character like Mickey Mouse isn’t just protected by copyright law, a protection that eventually expires and puts a work into the public domain. Mickey and Minnie are also protected by trademark law, and trademarks don’t expire as long as they’re properly used, maintained, and protected by their owners.

Thus, even though certain aspects of Mickey and Minnie may now be copied under Copyright Law, other aspects of the characters may still be protected by Disney trademarks.

As the New York Times reports, over the next decade, the following characters will enter the public domain:

Popeye, Pluto, Donald Duck, King Kong (the original film version), Superman, Daffy Duck, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and others from the Hobbit, James Bond, Batman, and Captain Marvel.

Although unauthorized works based on these characters can’t be published until they enter the public domain, writers are free to start working on their own versions now.

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