Disney’s original versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse finally entered the public domain in the US at the beginning of this year.  This means that you can now copy, edit, adapt and mess around with them – within reason.

The history

Everybody knows Mickey Mouse.  But where did it all begin?

Back in the 1920s, after seeing the film The Jazz Singer Walt Disney decided that he wanted to produce one of the first fully synchronised sound cartoons.  This culminated in the release of the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, directed by Disney and collaborator Ub Iwerks. 

The cartoon featured the ‘official’ debut of none other than Mickey and Minnie Mouse in primitive form and looking rather different to how we know them today (I say ‘official’ as both characters also appeared in the earlier short films Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, but neither film was selected for distribution before the success of Steamboat Willie).  Steamboat Willie was a landmark in technical innovation and is not only one of the first cartoons with synchronised sound but also one of the first to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack.

A picture of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

Mickey doing his thing in Steamboat Willie.

In 1998 the film was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, a testament to its impact on the world of animation.

Present day

US copyright law has undergone a number of changes since the days of Steamboat Willie, not least due to extensive lobbying by Disney to extend the duration of protection.  For works made for hire, such as Steamboat Willie, this is now 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation (whichever expires first) following amendments made by the 1988 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, also dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”.

Fast forward to 1 January 2024 and this 95 year period has now expired, meaning that US copyright no longer subsists in the original versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

As a result, anyone is now free under US copyright law to use and adapt the original iterations of these iconic characters without needing to obtain permission.  People have already been having fun with this and Adult Swim even aired a short clip of Mickey Mouse with the words “Public Domain B*tch”.

Do not be fooled though; this is not free reign to do whatever you want with Mickey Mouse.

The legal bit 

Despite the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse entering the public domain in the US, copyright still subsists in newer iterations of the famous character.  Therefore, if you copy the Fantasia iteration of Mickey Mouse for example (think white gloves, cloak, wizard’s hat and colouration) you could still find yourself on the wrong end of a claim from Disney.  That is, at least until the 95 year copyright term for the 1940 film expires.

The position in the UK is not entirely clear as there are several complexities when assessing historic cross-jurisdictional copyright subsistence and duration (as you can imagine).  However, the likelihood is that copyright in the Steamboat Willie iteration of Mickey Mouse also expired in the UK at the beginning of this year, if not sooner. 

In addition, Disney has various trade marks for Mickey Mouse.  The character is a well-known badge of origin of the cartoon conglomerate’s goods and services.  Therefore, any unauthorised use of the Mickey Mouse name or of the character as a brand identifier in merchandising and other products could result in a trade mark infringement claim in the UK.  Disney sells various Steamboat Willie era Mickey Mouse merchandise and is not likely to keel over without a fight.