The beloved mouse that is nearly a century old will soon enter public domain — the original Mickey Mouse’s copyright expires in 2024.
This anthropomorphic mouse is recognizable even by the silhouette of his ears and, in some ways, has been the face of The Walt Disney Co. since his 1928 creation. While his copyright will expire, it’s more complicated than it sounds.
“Steamboat Willie,” a short film released on Nov. 18, 1928, was the first distributed film with the mouse in it, according to Brittanica. Earlier that year, the character appeared in the 1928 “Plane Crazy” and “Gallopin’ Gaucho.” But despite this, the distribution of “Steamboat Willie,” and its status as a cartoon with sound unlike previous silent cartoons, contribute to why it’s considered the debut of Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney originally called him Mortimer Mouse, but changed the name at the behest of his wife, Lillian.
Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney collaborated on the creation of the character. Iwerks drew the character and Disney voiced the character for several years. Brittanica said that the mouse was an instant success and has appeared in more than 100 Disney creations.
A year after his short film debut, Mickey Mouse became part of Disney branding. The first Disney logo in 1929 featured Mickey Mouse, according to Tailor Brands. This logo featured a smiling Mickey Mouse with the phrase “Walt Disney Productions” above his head.
The original Mickey Mouse looks different than the more recent iterations. According to The New York Times, “This nonspeaking Mickey has a rat-like nose, rudimentary eyes (no pupils) and a long tail. He can be naughty. In one ‘Steamboat Willie’ scene, he torments a cat. In another, he uses a terrified goose as a trombone.”
This iteration of Mickey Mouse will be the one to enter the public domain — other versions of the character have copyrights that will expire later. Disney has made “Steamboat Willie” (a film just shy of eight minutes) available on YouTube for public consumption.
Even though the copyright will expire, Mickey Mouse is trademarked, which adds complications. The New York Times reported that trademarks do not expire over time like copyrights do. Essentially, this means that any use of the 1928 Mickey Mouse cannot include any elements that come later and cannot be confused as a Disney product.
“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. That will not change when the copyright in the ‘Steamboat Willie’ film expires,” Disney said in a statement per The New York Times.
What Disney characters will enter public domain?
There are other characters expected to enter public domain, according to Euro News. Pluto, Mickey Mouse’s dog, debuted in 1930, and Donald Duck debuted in 1936, which means that in the coming decade, their copyrights could expire. But like Mickey Mouse, they are trademarked characters.
After other iconic characters have entered the public domain, horrific things have happened. The beloved bear, Winnie the Pooh, entered public domain earlier this year and Jaded Edge Productions announced a horror movie about him called “Blood and Honey.” Disney’s version of the bear wears a red shirt and isn’t public domain, but A.A. Milne’s original creation of the bear is public domain. This film evaded trademark infringement because the adaption is clearly not a Disney film, per Euro News.
There’s some speculation that Mickey Mouse will be turned into a horror movie, but nothing concrete has materialized, according to Screen Rant,
It’s unclear where Disney will draw the legal lines around Mickey Mouse after his copyright expires.