Disney Loses Control Over First Mickey Mouse

Written by Jeppe W

Dec.22 - 2023 12:12 PM CET

Photo: Shutterstock.com
Photo: Shutterstock.com
As 1928 Version Enters Public Domain

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As the calendar turns to January 1, 2024, a significant shift will occur in the world of intellectual property rights: Disney's iconic mascot, Mickey Mouse, from his 1928 debut in 'Steamboat Willie', will transition into the public domain in the United States.

This milestone marks the character's release from exclusive ownership by Disney and allows the public to freely use this particular version of Mickey Mouse for creating animations, images, or new stories.

For years, utilizing Mickey Mouse in any form without Disney's permission could lead to fines or lawsuits. However, as of January 1, this changes for the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse, as it becomes public domain 96 years after its initial release.

The journey to this moment has seen several delays, with the U.S. Congress adjusting copyright laws multiple times to extend the duration before a work becomes public domain.

At one point, 'Steamboat Willie' could have entered the public domain as early as 2004, but the duration was extended to the current 95-year limit.

Professor Jennifer Jenkins from Duke University, a specialist in public domain issues, expresses excitement about this development, recognizing the symbolic significance of Mickey Mouse joining other iconic characters like Dracula, Winnie the Pooh, and Sherlock Holmes in the public domain. This inclusion opens up new creative possibilities and access to these cultural treasures.

Despite this transition, there are important caveats to note. Since it's specifically the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse that enters the public domain, any use of the character must reflect his appearance from that era – a non-speaking, monochrome figure different from the modern Disney symbol. Furthermore, modern versions of Mickey Mouse will remain under Disney's copyright protection.

Disney, in a statement to the Associated Press, affirms that modern iterations of Mickey Mouse will be unaffected by the expiration of the copyright for 'Steamboat Willie' and that the character will continue to serve as a global ambassador for the company.

'Steamboat Willie', directed by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks, was among the first cartoons to synchronize sound with on-screen action. Although it was the third Mickey Mouse film produced, it was the first to be released.

While Disney retains the rights to use Mickey Mouse as a symbol and logo, other film companies or amusement parks cannot use the iconic ears as logos. Additionally, it's prohibited to use Mickey Mouse on merchandise or other items that resemble or could be confused with Disney products.

This development represents a unique moment in copyright history, as one of the world's most famous cartoon characters becomes part of the public domain, inviting new interpretations and uses while still respecting the boundaries of Disney's ongoing trademarks and copyrights.

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