Original Mickey Mouse Cartoon Enters Public Domain, Here’s What We Already Have To Look Forward T...

Steamboat Willie, the original Mickey Mouse cartoon, officially lost its US copyright protection on January 1st 2024, making its likeness available to the public, who have already taken advantage of having legal access to the iconic character. 

Embed from Getty Images

On January 1st 2024, the original Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse cartoon became available to the public domain after losing its US copyright protection. Within hours of the new year, people all over the nation began using Steamboat Willie’s likeness to remix songs, create NFTs, and even release a poster and teaser trailer for a new horror film called ‘Mickey’s Mouse Trap,’ where a masked killer dressed as Mickey Mouse begins attacking a group of young people in an arcade. 

Nightmare Forge, a video game developer, released a trailer for a new video game on Monday called ‘Infestation 88,’ a horror game where a haunted Steamboat Willie hunts for the player in a dark warehouse. 

Two weeks earlier, game developer Fumi released a trailer for a noir style game where a “jazz filled shooter called Mouse,” where the player plays as a Steamboat Willie lookalike, according to Sian Cain, a deputy culture editor for the Guardian Australia.

“The copyright protection on Walt Disney’s 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie was initially due to expire in 1928, but Disney lobbied to have US copyright laws changed to cover the life of the author plus 50 years, which protected Willie until 2003.” 

As one of the most recognizable and long-standing animated characters in the world, Mickey Mouse in general has been extremely protected by Disney. In 1998, Disney successfully lobbied to have copyright protections extended to the “life of the author plus 70 years,” or 95 years after its initial publication, which is what protected Willie until the end of 2023. This move was unofficially referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, according to the Guardian

Besides Steamboat Willie, as of January 1st 2024, other 1928 works and creations also entered the US public domain, including Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Tigger from Winnie-the-Pooh. Winnie-the-Pooh met a similar fate as Steamboat Willie when the character lost copyright in 2022, and he ended up being a serial killer main character in a slasher movie. 

While anyone in the US can now use the 1928 likeness of Steamboat Willie, other countries will still have to wait based on their specific copyright laws, according to Cain.

Embed from Getty Images

“As copyright protections vary from country to country, Steamboat Willie will remain protected until at least 2042 in some jurisdictions that extend protection to works 70 years after the death of the last remaining author or creator – and Steamboat Willie’s co-creator Ub Iwerks only died in 1971.

Embed from Getty Images

While Steamboat Willie has lost his copyright protection in the US, and some other countries, Mickey Mouse as we know him remains under copyright. The character of Steamboat Willie has no voice, a long tail, and pointier nose than the Mickey we’re all used to, which has big eyes, and red shorts. 

‘Mickey’ itself is also trademarked, which can be indefinitely renewed by Disney. Disney will be able to maintain some control over the character for this reason. In a statement last week, Disney made a statement regarding this new change for Steamboat Willie. 

“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.”

“We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.”