Mickey Mouse In The Public Domain: Is The Mouse Now Free?

Published date18 January 2024
Subject MatterIntellectual Property, Copyright, Trademark
Law FirmHaldanes Solicitors & Notaries
AuthorAnthony Leung

On 1 January 2024, the iconic Mickey Mouse imagery (or at least a version of it) finally entered the public domain in the United States after nearly a century of copyright protection.

To no one's surprise, projects using Mickey Mouse images immediately started popping up as if on cue.

Two separate independent horror feature films featuring the mouse image have been announced1, with a trailer dropping right on 1 January 2024,2 and an indie horror video game was announced3, again with a trailer released on 1 January 20244.

Does this mean the Disney empire is finally losing control of the beloved mouse?

Perhaps not so fast. This article will examine the intricacies surrounding the intellectual property rights associated with Mickey Mouse.

So what is now free?

From the onset, it should be noted that only one aspect of the Mickey Mouse has changed. Namely the copyright status of the earliest version of Mickey Mouse in the US.

But first, it might be useful to take a brief detour at look at what copyright laws are supposed to do.

The primary purpose of copyright law is to encourage individuals to create new work by granting them a limited time during which they own exclusive economic rights (under the umbrella of "copyright") to the work they have created.

Once the period expires, the work enters the "public domain", meaning no one has exclusive copyright and the work is free for anyone to use.

While international treaties specify the minimum duration of copyright protection (also known as "copyright term"), there is no internationally prescribed maximum duration, which is left for individual states to decide.

In the United States, the copyright term for works has been changed multiple times, most notably in 1998.

This extension, lobbied for heavily by copyright holders, including Disney and sometimes derisively called the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act", extended the copyright of most existing works by 20 years in the US, so work published before 1 January 1978 now enjoys a total copyright term of 95 years from first publication.

Mickey Mouse first appeared in an animated short film entitled Steamboat Willie, co-created by the late Walt Disney in 1928.

With the US extension, the copyright duration of Steamboat Willie was pushed to 31 Dec 2023.

This means the original Steamboat Willie film and, more significantly, the first public iterations of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse appearing in it no longer enjoy copyright protection in the US5.

This means anyone in the US...

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