Get Ready for Rodent Remixes as Mickey Mouse Enters Public Domain
Hope your New Year is off to a great start! Some of us on the nerdier side had an entirely different reason to pop champagne to ring in the new year: Public Domain Day! Every January 1st, a wave of creative riches are released into the Public Domain, finally free for anyone to legally enjoy. This year brings a particularly notable and long-awaited member of the public domain: Mickey Mouse. Let's explore how our beloved Disney icon went from steamer to slasher as we explore the law around the public domain and copyrights.
What Is the Public Domain?
The public domain is a treasure trove of creative works (like books, music, and films) whose copyright has expired (or was never obtained in the first place, though that's pretty rare, as we'll talk about). These materials are free for anyone to use without permission, opening doors for remixing, reimagining, and sharing a slice of cultural history.
Each year, more previously copyrighted works get released out of copyright, which adds to the growing pile of creative works you can enjoy for free. As a result, you can devour classic novels, poems, and plays without paying a dime. You can freely screen silent films, animation, and early talkies, experiencing cinema's golden age. And you can groove to vintage jazz, blues, and classical music, all for free.
There are countless examples of works already in the public domain, many of which you've probably already consumed: literary titans like Virginia Woolf weaving tales of love and loss; silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin striking their iconic poses; jazz legends like Louis Armstrong scatting their hearts out; and perhaps most famous, early Mickey Mouse cartoons bringing a touch of Walt Disney magic.
But some of you may be thinking, who cares? Maybe old-timey 'toons and tunes aren't your thing; maybe you already get your entertainment for free from pirated sources or don't mind paying for it. But Public Domain Day isn't just about free stuff. It's a celebration of creativity, a chance to rediscover forgotten gems and breathe new life into old art. So much new art wouldn't be possible without its roots and inspirations being released into the public domain, and so the process affects you more than you might realize.
A Recap of Copyright Law
How does the public domain relate to copyright? It essentially boils down to how long a copyright is in effect.
How does one get a copyright into effect in the first place? Well, unlike other intellectual property protections (like trademarks and patents), copyrights are essentially automatic. Copyright protection kicks in the moment a creative work is “fixed in a tangible medium" (like writing down a song or recording a film). No registration or formal paperwork is needed — it's like a built-in invisible shield protecting the work from unauthorized use.
The duration of a copyright depends on several factors, but much of it depends on whether that copyright was created before or after a certain point in time: January 1, 1978. For works created before this date, the general rule is that the copyright on the work is good for the entire life of the author, plus an additional 70 years after their death. Similarly, for works made by joint authors, the work will survive for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author.
What if the authorship isn't clear? In cases such as works for hire, anonymous works, and pseudonymous works, the copyright endures until whichever of the following two comes first: 120 years from the work's creation or 95 years from the work's first publication.
'Steamboat' Mickey Now Free
If you've been following the news this week, you may have heard a lot of buzz about America's favorite rodent (sorry, Charlie; not you). Mickey Mouse, the beloved Disney icon, is making headlines stemming from a major legal milestone: his copyright entering the public domain in the United States on January 1st, 2024.
After 95 years of copyright protection, the original 1928 version of Mickey Mouse is now free for anyone to use without Disney's permission. His entrance into the public domain is a significant event for both Disney and the world of intellectual property, and it will be interesting to see how his legacy evolves in the years to come. It opens up a plethora of possibilities, from fan-made animations and merchandise to historical analysis and remixes.
It's important to note that only the original black-and-white 1928 Mickey Mouse is now public domain — the one portrayed in the famous “Steamboat Willie" cartoon. Think long, skinny limbs, black button eyes with pupils, and a squarish head with expressive eyebrows. No gloves, no color — such as the iconic red pants. Later versions and his name are still protected by Disney's trademarks. So, while you can create your own Mickey-inspired artwork or stories, you can't directly copy his current design without permission.
A Horrific Twist
As public domain characters are free for anyone to use, some independent filmmakers are planning to create horror films featuring the early (and arguably kind of creepy) version of Mickey Mouse. While Disney can prevent the use of specific trademarked elements like his current design and name, the original, public-domain Mickey is fair game.
For example, director Jamie Bailey recently dropped the chilling trailer for his live-action slasher film Mickey's Mouse Trap, showcasing a group of friends terrorized by a masked killer dressed as Mickey Mouse at a carnival. The tagline "The mouse is out" promises a brutal twist on the iconic character. Another film, directed by Steven LaMorte, is still in the early stages, but in a press release, he was quoted saying, “I can't wait to unleash our twisted take on this beloved character to the world."
There are even plans in the video game industry: the game Infestation: Origins by Nightmare Forge Games throws players into a survival horror scenario where an outbreak of vermin takes a dark turn and will involve the iconic rodent as he appeared in “Steamboat Willie."
What to Expect
A year ago, on Public Domain Day 2023, something similar happened with Winnie the Pooh. Horror movie junkies might remember the release of the rather surprising film, Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. Our team covered that case in FindLaw's podcast episode from that time, which you can listen to here. A similar pattern will likely play out with Mickey in 2024. One thing is clear: for those of you who don't want their cherished childhood mouse ruined for you, you'll want to brace yourself for a lot of liberties taken with Mickey shortly.
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