Public Domain Day 2024: Disney’s Mickey Mouse

On January 1, 2024, Steamboat Willie, featuring the original Mickey Mouse, entered the public domain and is now free to copy, share and recreate. While it is a day that lawyers and content creators following copyright law have been anticipating for 40 years, it comes with significant fine print, which we discussed in our Insight, The Public Domain Landscape 2019.

Steamboat Willie was released in 1928. Under copyright law at the time, works were to enter the public domain after 28 years unless renewed, giving protection a total of 56 years. In 1978 the law increased the term to 75 years for corporate owners like The Walt Disney Company (“Disney”) or life plus 70 years for works owned individually. In 1998, under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, colloquially referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, Congress added an extra 20 years for all copyrighted works. These amendments to copyright law extended Steamboat Willie’s protected status first to 2003 and then to 2023.

Despite the attention being paid to this milestone, Disney will retain copyright in later versions of the character, such as when Mickey Mouse evolved from black and white to color and when elements such as the iconic white gloves were added. Importantly, Disney retains trademark rights in the name and visual aspects of Mickey as used in later animated and live action motion pictures, comic books, merchandise, theme parks and more. Given these overlapping rights, Disney will continue to profit from Mickey, which is estimated to have generated billions of dollars over the decades.

For copyright holders without Disney’s resources and global reach, it is worth noting that in recent years Disney has relied not only on copyright and trademark protection, but has also taken advantage of the takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) to protect its IP interests expeditiously and at less expense.