Disney’s Copyright on Mickey Mouse Is About to Expire

By: Georgia | Published: Dec 21, 2023

The iconic character Mickey Mouse, specifically the version from the 1928 animation “Steamboat Willie,” is nearing its entry into the public domain. Set to occur in 2024, this event marks nearly a century since the character’s debut. 

This event marks a pivotal moment in copyright history, as Disney has spent decades lobbying to extend the length of copyright to maintain exclusive rights over its most famous ambassador.

The Evolution of Mickey Mouse

The Mickey Mouse character that will soon become public domain differs significantly from the modern version familiar to audiences today. 

A black and white statue of Mickey Mouse in the Steamboat Willie era depicted steering a ship's wheel

Source: Getty Images

The “Steamboat Willie” Mickey, featured in the 1928 animated short, is characterized by a longer nose and a thinner tail, reflecting the artistic style of the era. This early version of Mickey Mouse is a testament to the character’s enduring legacy and evolution over the years.

Disney's Efforts to Extend Copyright

Originally, the copyright for “Steamboat Willie” Mickey was set to expire in 1984. However, Disney successfully lobbied to extend copyright terms, significantly influencing copyright law. 

Close-up view of the back of a black Mickey Mouse ear hat against a softly glowing pink and purple background. The hat features an orange circular emblem with a classic Mickey Mouse face and the signature 'Walt Disney World' written around the edge

Source: Brian McGowan/Unsplash

According to Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Intellectual Property Law Blog, Disney’s efforts were instrumental in reshaping the legal landscape surrounding copyright durations, reflecting the company’s dedication to protecting its intellectual property.

Changing Copyright Laws

Copyright laws have undergone several changes over the past century. Initially, a work could be protected for 28 years, with the possibility of a 28-year extension. 

Two people dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse characters are standing on a busy city street at night. Mickey is wearing a red outfit with a sorcerer's hat, while Minnie is dressed in her signature red dress with white polka dots and a matching bow

Source: Steven Lozano/Unsplash

However, Disney’s lobbying in the 1970s led to the introduction of the Copyright Act of 1976, which extended the copyright term. 

The 'Mickey Mouse Protection Act'

As the expiration of the new copyright term approached in the late 1990s, Disney again lobbied for an extension. This effort resulted in the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, colloquially known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” 

A person in a Mickey Mouse costume is standing on a parade float, dressed in a magician's attire with a purple suit and orange stripes, a matching tall hat, and white gloves

Source: Miranda Campbell/Unsplash

According to LUC’s law blog, this act further extended copyright terms, highlighting Disney’s ongoing commitment to maintaining control over its key characters.

A New Chapter Begins in 2024

On January 1, 2024, the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain. 

A large Ferris wheel with a central iconic Mickey Mouse face design stands in the foreground. The wheel is adorned with orange sunburst patterns behind the Mickey silhouette

Source: Taylor R/Unsplash

This means that this particular version of the character will be free for public use, a significant change in the character’s copyright status.


Disney's Continued Copyright Control

Despite the impending public domain status of the original Mickey Mouse, Disney retains strong control over the character’s modern incarnations. Each new version of Mickey Mouse that Disney creates is copyrighted, ensuring that contemporary depictions of the character remain protected. 

A transparent balloon with a blue Mickey Mouse silhouette inside floats in the foreground with a bokeh effect of twinkling lights and soft focused buildings in the background

Source: Steven Lozano/Unsplash

Disney’s ability to adapt and protect its intellectual property illustrates the company’s strategic approach to maintaining its iconic brand.


Trademark Protection for Mickey Mouse

In addition to copyright, Disney also holds trademarks on the modern version of Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are posing side by side for a photo opportunity. Mickey is dressed in his traditional black tuxedo with a yellow bow tie and white gloves, while Minnie wears a red dress with white polka dots, a matching bow on her head, and white gloves

Source: Taha/Unsplash

This legal protection provides additional layers of control over how the character is used and represented. The trademark protection ensures that while the original version of Mickey may be entering the public domain, the character’s contemporary image remains under Disney’s control.


Disney's Statement on Mickey's Role

Despite the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse entering the public domain, Disney has stated that more modern versions of the character will remain unaffected. 

A hand is holding a coffee mug with a comic strip design featuring Mickey Mouse, who is smiling and gesturing with his hands. The mug is set against the backdrop of a rain-speckled window

Source: Jonathan Kemper/Unsplash

The company asserts “More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise,” This statement was provided to the Associated Press, emphasizing Disney’s commitment to its mascot’s ongoing presence.


Historical Context of Public Domain Characters

Mickey Mouse is not the first iconic character to enter the public domain. In 2022, the original version of Winnie the Pooh became free for public use. 

A bronze statue capturing the iconic 'Partners' image of Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey Mouse, both gazing into the distance. Walt Disney is pointing forward, while Mickey looks up at him

Source: Jose Mizrahi/Unsplash

This transition of well-known characters into the public domain exemplifies the natural progression of copyright law and the eventual release of classic characters for broader creative exploration.


Potential for New Interpretations

With “Steamboat Willie” Mickey Mouse entering the public domain, there is potential for new and diverse interpretations of the character. 

A water tower painted with 'Walt Disney Studios' and adorned with Mickey Mouse ears stands tall against a blue sky, with palm trees and colorful flowers in the foreground

Source: Lydia Turner/Unsplash

Similar to how the public domain status of Winnie the Pooh led to unique adaptations, the same may occur for Mickey. This development opens up possibilities for creative reinterpretations of one of the world’s most beloved characters.


Reflecting on a Century of Copyright

The journey of Mickey Mouse from a copyrighted character to one entering the public domain represents a significant chapter in copyright history. This transition highlights the evolution of intellectual property laws and Disney’s role in shaping these regulations.

Mickey Mouse is standing on a balcony, waving happily. The building in the background has a classic architectural style with a clock tower displaying the time, ornate trim, and decorated with patriotic bunting in red, white, and blue with stars

Source: Steven Beyer/Unsplash

As “Steamboat Willie” Mickey Mouse prepares to enter a new phase of accessibility, it is a clear example of the dynamic nature of copyright and the ongoing relevance of iconic characters in popular culture.