Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse Joins Public Domain: Disney’s Iconic Character Now Available for New Creative Uses

Steamboat Willie's Mickey Mouse Joins Public Domain: Disney's Iconic Character Now Available for New Creative Uses

On January 1, 2024, a significant cultural shift occurred as the original version of Mickey Mouse, featured in Walt Disney’s 1928 classic, “Steamboat Willie,” became publicly accessible for the first time, entering the public domain.

Mickey Mouse, a character deeply ingrained in American pop culture and a cornerstone of the Disney brand for almost a century, has been under the exclusive copyright of the Walt Disney Company. However, this exclusivity has lapsed due to the copyright laws set by Congress in 1998, which allow a 95-year hold on copyright.
The change opens new possibilities for the iconic character, although with important distinctions.

According to a Disney spokesperson in a CNN statement, modern iterations of Mickey will not be affected by the Steamboat Willie copyright expiry. The character will remain critical in Disney’s storytelling, theme parks, and merchandise.

Notably, Mickey from “Steamboat Willie” differs from the modern version, lacking characteristics like gloves and oversized shoes and having more straightforward eyes.

Harvard Law School’s Rebecca Tushnet highlighted that while the public domain permits the free reinterpretation of Steamboat Willie, it does not extend to elements of the modern Mickey Mouse, which remains under Disney’s trademark.
To avoid copyright infringement, creations must be distinctly based on the 1928 version, Tushnet advises. She warns that Disney will likely challenge any depictions of the character closely resembling the modern Mickey Mouse.

The company affirmed its commitment to protecting its rights over the current versions of Mickey Mouse and other copyrighted works and preventing consumer confusion from unauthorized uses.

Tushnet anticipates that platforms like Etsy might see early interpretations of Steamboat Willie, though it warns that legal nuances could pose challenges for small creators.

Despite Disney’s firm control, exceptions for using even the modern Mickey Mouse exist in educational, satirical, or parodic contexts.

Following the 2022 entry of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh into the public domain, which led to varied new interpretations like the 2023 horror film “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” Tushnet suggests that early Mickey could similarly inspire diverse and imaginative creations.

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