An Early Version of Mickey Mouse Enters the Public Domain on January 1, 2024

Hap­py New Year!

We can now “do to Dis­ney what Dis­ney did to the great works of the pub­lic domain before him,” accord­ing to Har­vard law pro­fes­sor and pub­lic domain expert, Lawrence Lessig, hailed by The New York­er as “the most impor­tant thinker on intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty in the Inter­net era.”

On Jan­u­ary 1, Mick­ey Mouse and his con­sort, Min­nie, wrig­gled free of their cre­ator’s iron fist for the first time in cor­po­rate his­to­ry, as their debut per­for­mance in Steam­boat Willie entered the pub­lic domain along with thou­sands of oth­er 1928 worksLady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover, All Qui­et on the West­ern Front, and The House at Pooh Cor­ner to name but a star­ry few.

Dis­ney has been noto­ri­ous­ly pro­tec­tive of its con­trol over its spokesmouse, suc­cess­ful­ly push­ing Con­gress to adopt the Son­ny Bono Copy­right Exten­sion Act of 1998, which kept the public’s mitts off of Steam­boat Willie, and, more to the point, Mick­ey Mouse, for 25 years beyond the terms of the Copy­right Act of 1976.

But now our day has come…

Don’t be shy!

Dig in!

Dis­ney always did.

As Lessig remarked in a 2003 lec­ture at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty:

Walt Dis­ney embraced the free­dom to take, change and return ideas from our pop­u­lar cul­ture. The rip, mix and burn cul­ture of the Inter­net is Dis­ney-famil­iar.

Cin­derel­la, Snow White, Pinoc­chio — Uncle Walt knew how to take lib­er­ties and make mon­ey with cap­ti­vat­ing source mate­r­i­al, a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ued through such lat­er car­toon block­busters as The Lit­tle Mer­maid and Dis­ney’s Snow Queen update, Frozen.

Steam­boat Willie was­n’t con­jured from thin air either. Its plot and title char­ac­ter were inspired by Buster Keaton’s Steam­boat Bill, released two months before Disney’s ani­mat­ed short went into pro­duc­tion.

A few caveats for those eager to take a crack at the Mouse…

Steam­boat Willie’s new­found pub­lic domain sta­tus doesn’t give you carte blanche to mess around with Mick­ey and Min­nie in all their many forms.

Stick to the music-lov­ing black-and-white trick­ster with rub­ber­hose arms, but­ton-trimmed short-shorts, and the dis­tinct­ly rodent-like tail that went by the way­side for Mickey’s appear­ance in 1941’s The Lit­tle Whirl­wind.

Nor can Steam­boat Willie-era Mick­ey become your new logo. Plop the char­ac­ter down in new nar­ra­tives, yes. Use him in a rec­og­niz­able way for pur­pos­es of adver­tis­ing unre­lat­ed prod­ucts, no.

Mis­lead view­ers into think­ing your mash up is Dis­ney-approved at your own risk. A Dis­ney spokesper­son told CNN:

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, and we will work to safe­guard against con­sumer con­fu­sion caused by unau­tho­rized uses of Mick­ey and our oth­er icon­ic char­ac­ters.

Don’t think they don’t mean it.

Author Robert Thomp­son, the found­ing direc­tor of Syra­cuse University’s Bleier Cen­ter for Tele­vi­sion and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture told The Guardian that even though “the orig­i­nal Mick­ey isn’t the one we all think of and have on our T‑shirts or pil­low­cas­es up in the attic some­place,” the com­pa­ny is hyper­vig­i­lant about pro­tect­ing its assets:

Sym­bol­i­cal­ly of course, copy­right is impor­tant to Dis­ney and it has been very care­ful about their copy­rights to the extent that laws have changed to pro­tect them. This is the only place I know that some obscure high school in the mid­dle of nowhere can put on The Lion King and the Dis­ney copy­right peo­ple show up.

Per­haps your best bet is to make sure your work skews toward satire or par­o­dy, a la the infa­mous hor­ror film Win­nie the Pooh: Blood and Hon­ey, which cap­i­tal­ized on author A.A. Milne’s 1926 book, Win­nie the Pooh’s entrance into the pub­lic domain, while traf­fick­ing in some famil­iar char­ac­ter design. Dis­ney ulti­mate­ly let it slide.

Fumi Games is already poised to take a sim­i­lar gam­ble with MOUSE, a blood-soaked, “grit­ty, jazz-fueled shoot­er” set to drop in 2025:

If you’re not yet ready to take the plunge, Mickey’s pals Plu­to and Don­ald Duck will join him in the pub­lic domain lat­er this decade, so don your think­ing caps and mark your cal­en­dars.

For a more in-depth look at the ways you can — and can­not — use Steam­boat Willie-era Mick­ey Mouse in your own work, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty’s Cen­ter for the Study of the Pub­lic Domain sup­plies a very thor­ough guide here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Dis­ney Car­toon That Intro­duced Mick­ey Mouse & Ani­ma­tion with Sound (1928)

Mick­ey Mouse In Viet­nam: The Under­ground Anti-War Ani­ma­tion from 1968, Co-Cre­at­ed by Mil­ton Glaser

“Evil Mick­ey Mouse” Invades Japan in a 1934 Japan­ese Ani­me Pro­pa­gan­da Film

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo. Her vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain, returns to New York City on Feb­ru­ary 29, 2024. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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