An earlier rendition of Mickey Mouse, an iconic figure in popular culture, lost its copyright protection in 2024. Following the expiration of copyright, the public gained the right to use the images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse as they appeared in their debut screen release, the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie.
According to US law, a copyright could be held for 95 years, a duration extended multiple times by Congress. On August 13, 1941, the animation innovator Walt Disney introduced his beloved character in “Steamboat Willie,” the first short cartoon with synchronized sound. He further released his inaugural full-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in 1937. Disney, a multimedia visionary associated with family entertainment, expanded into television and book publishing, leaving a lasting impact on the industry.
The adjustment led to a situation colloquially known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, as remarked by Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain. She pointed out that the term extension wasn’t solely driven by Disney but by a broader group of copyright holders benefiting from the additional protection.
The alteration implies that the public can now only use the mischievous, rat-like, non-speaking boat captain featured in Steamboat Willie, not the more contemporary versions.
Disney responded, stating, “Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance, people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products. That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires. 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.”
While not every characteristic of a character is necessarily copyrightable, courts may be occupied in the ensuing years to determine what falls within or outside Disney’s ownership. “Steamboat Willie,” directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, marked one of the initial cartoons to synchronize sound with visuals.