Mickey, Minnie of 'Steamboat Willie' fame are now in public domain

The famous Disney characters are now free for public use


Everyone’s favourite rodents are now public!

Steamboat Willie is a 1928 black-and-white animated short film, which introduced to the world the famous characters Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. The characters, co-created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, have grown to become the face of Disney and Disney productions.

According to the US copyrights law, the rights to a character can only be held for 95 years. This means that, as of January 1, 2024, after almost a century of being under Disney, the earlier versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse are now out in the public domain. The characters can now be sampled, shared and repurposed legally, but no one can own it.

It should be noted that the modern versions of Mickey and Minnie are still under copyright, and cannot be used for any creative reinterpretation. The public should also keep in mind that only the images of the mouses in Steamboat Willie can be used, not the names of the mouses, since Disney still has a firm grip on them, owing to a trademark.

One also cannot produce work of Mickey and Minnie that falsely classifies itself as a Disney merchandise or product that may mislead the consumers. Any action done so will result in a strict legal action by Disney.

There is an obvious character difference between Steamboat Willie Mickey and modern-day Mickey. The infamous white gloves and oversized shoes are noticeable in modern Mickey. The eyes have also changed throughout the years, from plain black ovals to “pie-eyed” Mickey and now to modern day, where his eyes now have pupils.

The earlier version of the Mickey and Minnie was to be released to the public in 1984 but Disney requested an extension of the copyright, and 20 years were granted to them. This again led to a contract expansion in 2004, where the copyright was extended for another 20 years, leading to its current release in 2024. Disney was able to extend their contract due to the existence of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, also dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

The move creates opportunities for more creative interpretation of the old versions of the mouses, exactly what resulted after Winnie the Pooh entered public domain on January 1, 2022. Rhys Frake Waterfield took the release of the cuddly cartoon teddy bear to his advantage and created a twisted horror, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023), which scored a disappointing 3 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.

So, netizens are now worried that the beloved Disney mouses will be subjected to the same torment that Winnie the Pooh went through, with one saying “does that mean mickey will be featured in a horror movie this year?!” and another commenting “the empire is falling”.

This year, other popular works, too, enter the public domain. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover among others, have also been released from copyright.


Join our WhatsApp Channel to get the latest news, exclusives and videos on WhatsApp