January 1st, 2024, marks Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse’s entry into the public domain — well, kind of. Steamboat Willie, the short film that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse, is now a part of the public domain, which means Disney’s copyright over the film has expired. Now, Steamboat Willie and all the characters featured in the short film can be used creatively without breaking copyright law.
There are, however, still conditions that determine how the characters featured in Steamboat Willie can be used without repercussions. Let’s take a look at the contingencies that come with the mouse getting out of his house.
Steamboat Willie’s Debut
In 1928, Mickey Mouse appeared in three separate short films, two of which — Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy — are now in the public domain. Steamboat Willie was not only the public’s first meeting with Mickey, but Minnie as well, Mickey’s love interest who would become as synonymous with Disney as Mickey himself.
Disney’s brand has majorly evolved since its first short films, but Mickey’s debut has many traits that audiences still see in Disney’s modern projects. In Steamboat Willie, Mickey is a steamboat driver working under Captain Pete. The boat stops to pick up livestock, and they leave from the port; Minnie Mouse appears, calling after Mickey and chases after the boat. When Minnie gets aboard, Mickey and Minnie begin making music out of the animals until Captain Pete sentences Mickey to the kitchen to peel potatoes.
The music and animation work overtime to make up for the little dialogue. There’s plenty of physical comedy, reactionary music, and a type of slapstick comedy in some of the comedic bits that fans will recognize in later films. However, the differences between the first version of Mickey and Minnie and their newer iterations are what make their entry into the public domain significant.
Mickey Mouse 1.0
The Mickey Mouse that helms the boat in Steamboat Willie is a very different version of the Mickey Mouse that billions of people know today. In his debut, Mickey lacks his usual white gloves and doesn’t wear a shirt, unlike some of his later iterations. His personality also has notable differences: where today’s Mickey has a friendly charm, this earlier Mickey is rough around the edges. His antagonist relationship with Captain Pete and his treatment of the animals aboard reveals a Mickey that is crass and abrasive and finds amusement in the pain of others, a marked difference from how the Disney mascot acts in the present.
These deviations, as small as they may seem, are important to note. As Steamboat Willie is the only Mickey Mouse project to enter the domain, all other iterations of him (and Minnie and Pete) are still under Disney’s copyright. Noted by Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and the director of Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain:
Copyright expiration allows you to use the original Mickey and Minnie Mouse in new creative works, even though those characters also appear in more recent works that are still under copyright. With newer iterations of those characters, Disney only owns original, creative expression that qualifies for copyright, not mere ideas, unoriginal or stock character features, or ‘merely trivial’ variations to the original characters.
Anyone is now able to redraw the original Mickey and Minnie Mouse doing anything from salsa dancing to working in a hospital, as long as they don’t step outside of the design and persona of the characters in the 1928 film.
The Future of Mickey Mouse
According to CNN, a spokesperson for Disney had this to say on the fate of the company’s iconic mascot:
[We will] continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.
Mickey and Minnie may be in the public domain, but the characters are still trademarked by Disney. Trademarked characters are still eligible to be used when their copyright expires, but those characters can’t be used in any way that will cause people to confuse the artist’s version with the trademarked version.
Mickey and Minnie will enter the public domain again on January 1st, 2025 when the copyright on the 1928 short film The Gallopin’ Gaucho expires.
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