Business Standard

Disney’s Mickey Mouse enters public domain as 95-year-old copyright expires

Posted on


Walt Disney Co

The current copyright term was passed in 1998 but Congress is unlikely to expand it further. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Iconic American cartoon character Mickey Mouse entered the public domain on Monday as its copyrights with Disney expired under the United States law on the last day of 2023, after a whopping 95-year time period.

At least one version of the quintessential piece of intellectual property will be free from Disney’s copyright as Mickey Mouse’s first screen release in the 1928 short film ‘Steamboat Willie’, featuring both him and Minnie Mouse, became available for public use from January 1.

‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’

The US law allows a copyright to be held for 95 years. Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, explained that law is sometimes derisively referred to as the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’, however, it wasn’t just Disney that sought multiple term expansions on the law. “It was a whole group of copyright holders whose works were set to go into the public domain soon, who benefited greatly from the 20 years of extra protection,” she said.

The current copyright term was passed in 1998 but Congress is unlikely to expand it further. This is close yet different from the European Union law, where one’s intellectual property is protected until 70 years after the creator’s death or 70 years after the death of the last surviving author in the case of a work of joint authorship.

Is Mickey Mouse completely free?

Due to the 95-year time period condition, the other versions of the character won’t be affected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright. The law applies only to the non-speaking boat captain Mickey, who appeared in the 1928 film.

More modern versions of Mickey remain subject to copyright, and the character will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise, Disney said in a statement on the matter.

Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products,” a Disney spokesperson said. “That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires.”

Limitations on use

While the character has entered the public domain, the leading entertainment major still holds the rights over the trademark on Mickey as a corporate mascot and brand identifier. The character cannot be used deceptively to indicate that the product is from the original creator, Disney.

Disney’s statement said it “will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorised uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.

Steamboat Willie

The nearly century-old short film features Mickey captaining a boat and making musical instruments out of other animals. The song inspired the title of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr, which was released just a few months before Steamboat Willi. Keaton’s film has been in the public domain since 1956, as its copyright was not renewed.

Another popular fictional character, Tigger, along with Winnie the Pooh, has entered the public domain as the book in which the bouncing tiger first appeared, ‘The House at Pooh Corner’, turns 96.

(With inputs from AP)

First Published: Jan 02 2024 | 1:45 PM IST


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *