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Mickey Mouse will soon belong to you and me – with some caveats

Published:Friday | December 15, 2023 | 12:11 AM

File photo shows Minnie and Mickey Mouse performing for guests during a musical show in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World on Friday, July 14, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Disney, on Tuesday, November 14, released a study showing its economic impact in Florida at more than $40 billion, as it battles in courts with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his appointees over their takeover of the district that governs the entertainment company’s massive resort in central Florida.


M-I-C-K-E-Y will soon belong to you and me.

With several asterisks, qualification and caveats, Mickey Mouse in his earliest form will be the leader of the band of characters, films and books that will become public domain as the year turns to 2024.

In a moment many close observers thought might never come, at least one version of the quintessential piece of intellectual property, and perhaps the most iconic character in American pop culture, will be free from Disney’s copyright as his first screen release, the 1928 short Steamboat Willie, featuring both Mickey and Minnie Mouse, becomes available for public use.

“This is it. This is Mickey Mouse. This is exciting because it’s kind of symbolic,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, who writes an annual January 1 column for ‘Public Domain Day’.

“I kind of feel like the pipe on the steamboat, like expelling smoke. It’s so exciting,” she said.

United States (US) law allows a copyright to be held for 95 years after Congress expanded it several times during Mickey’s life.

“It’s sometimes derisively referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” Jenkins said. “That’s oversimplified because it wasn’t just Disney that was pushing for term extension. 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.”

“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 in a statement to The Associated Press. “That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires.”

Current artists and creators will be able to make use of Mickey, but with major limits. It is only the more mischievous, rat-like, non-speaking boat captain in Steamboat Willie that has become public.

“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,” Disney’s statement said.


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