‘Steamboat Willie’ is now in the public domain. What does that mean for Mickey Mouse?
An early Walt Disney movie featuring the first appearance of Mickey Mouse is among the copyrighted works from 1928 moving into the public domain on Jan. 1, 2024.

“You know, he’s evolved so much and become more 3D and colorful,” observes Ryan Harmon, a former Disney Imagineer, of the character today. He remembers anxious talk, when he worked at the company in the 1990s, about the beloved icon eventually entering the public domain. But that’s not happening, says Kembrew McLeod, a communications professor and intellectual property scholar at the University of Iowa. “What is going into the public domain is this particular appearance in this particular film,” he says.

That means people can creatively reuse only the Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie. Not the Mickey Mouse in the 1940 movie Fantasia. Nor the one on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a kids’ show that aired on the Disney Channel for a decade starting in 2006.

New versions of Mickey Mouse remain under copyright. Copyright applies to creative characters, movies, books, plays, songs and more. And as it happens, Mickey Mouse is also trademarked. “Trademark law is entirely about protecting brands, logos and names — like Mickey Mouse as a logo, or the name Mickey Mouse,” McLeod says.

“And of course, trademark law has no end,” adds Harvard Law School professor Ruth Okediji. Disney and other corporations, she says, use trademarks to extend control over intellectual property.” As long as the mark remains distinctive in the supply of goods and services, the owner of the trademark gets to protect that trademark.”

Here are 2024’s public domain works, and how you can use them (unquote)

Image courtesy Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo

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