As US Copyright Expires, Disney’s Early Mickey and Minnie Mouse join Public Domain

The House of Mouse was established through the cartoon.

It is commonly believed that the turning point in Disney’s fortunes and cinematic history came with the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, which featured early non-speaking incarnations of Mickey and Minnie.

Now that Disney’s copyright has expired, its photographs can be freely used by everyone in the US.

Cartoonists and other creatives can now utilise and tweak the original Mickey and Minnie designs.

Actually, those versions are freely and inexpensively usable by anyone.

Disney has issued a warning, though, that copyright does in fact cover more recent iterations of Mickey.

“We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright,” according to the business.

The characters from Steamboat Willie were released into the public domain on Monday, 1 January 2024, in accordance with US copyright law, which states that rights to characters can be held for 95 years.

Sharing, performing, reusing, repurposing, or sampling those works is now completely legal.

On New Year’s Day in the United States, many works, including the original Mickey and Minnie designs, become part of the public domain.

Even more well-known works from 1928, including films, novels, music, and characters, are now accessible to Americans.

Among these works are The Circus, a silent romantic comedy by Charlie Chaplin; The House at Pooh Corner, a book by AA Milne, which introduced the character Tigger; Orlando, a novel by Virginia Woolf; and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by DH Lawrence.

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Copyright laws and expiration dates in the United Kingdom are unique.

Disney has been in the position of potentially losing copyright to its original animated features on multiple occasions.

Congress decided to prolong the time of 20 years, therefore the characters would remain in the public domain for longer than originally anticipated.

Another 20-year extension was authorised prior to the next expiration date in 2004.

The legislation has been called “the Mickey Mouse Protection Act” because to Disney’s “deeply symbolic” attempts to safeguard its characters. However, the time has arrived.

A “deeply symbolic and long awaited” milestone, according to Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Duke Centre for the Study of the Public Domain, who spoke with the BBC.

“What that means for us is that as of 2024, anyone will be free to copy, share and build upon those original cartoons from 1928 and the characters within them,” according to her.

Because of Disney’s “perceived role” in keeping its properties out of the public domain for so long due to the expansion of the copyright term, the occasion was especially significant, according to Jenkins.

Mickey is still used as a corporate mascot and brand identity by Disney, who owns the trademark for it separately. According to Jenkins, there are still restrictions on how the general public can utilise these photographs.

“What I cannot do is start making merchandise and the same kinds of products that Disney sells,” according to her.

“So if I’m selling T-shirts with Mickey and Minnie on them, and someone seeing those T-shirts thinks erroneously that they’re getting a Disney product when they’re not, that’s what trademark stops.”

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Thus, a trademark issue would still exist with any usage of Mickey Mouse that suggests he is associated with a brand other than Disney.

Someone may attempt to subject Mickey and Minnie to the horror movie treatment, according to Jack Kendall, a 32-year-old digital content maker from Warwickshire who operates a YouTube channel for Disney news explainers.

He drew a comparison to the time an R-rated horror picture, Blood and Honey, was made from the public domain version of Winnie the Pooh, which was among the lowest-grossing pictures of the year.

The fact that Disney has become “a political lightning rod in pop culture” has led Kendall, who boasts over 168,000 subscribers to his DSNY Newscast channel, to feel that the company would want to stay out of any future legal conflict.

“But they also want to protect their two most identifiable characters,” he told the British broadcaster.

According to him, “Disney’s way of safeguarding the characters if they want to go the legal route in any egregious use of the characters” is the reasoning behind Disney’s trademarked versions of Steamboat Willie appearing on merchandising, new animated shorts, and even a studio’s theatrical logo.

An official from Disney stated that the association between the brand and Mickey Mouse dates back to the character’s debut in 1928.

“That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires,” claimed the group.

“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.”

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“Work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorised uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters” was another point made by the corporation.

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