January 1 is often a day to recover from New Year’s Eve festivities; for intellectual property watchers, it is also known as “Public Domain Day.” This year, many people are particularly excited because versions of Mickey Mouse and Minnie are entering the public domain after 95 years. 

What Is the Public Domain?

First, what exactly does it mean when we refer to something as being in the “public domain?” means that a creative work no longer has protection under United States copyright laws—it can now be used by anyone in the public. 

Works primarily enter the public domain through three ways: 

  1. Expiration of a copyright after 95 years
  2. A copyright owner might intentionally place the work in the public domain 
  3. Owners may forget to renew a copyright or don’t properly follow the renewal process, resulting in expiration

Uncopyrightable aspects of a work will also be in the public domain, including stock elements, ideas and material that is not considered original. 

The “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”

In 1998, the Disney Company pushed Congress to extend the time a copyright can remain in effect. The ensuing rule, which passed, was given the nickname the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” although Disney was not the only company with an interest in extending the timeframe for copyrights. In fact, many film studios wanted the extension as well and the act was actually named the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, after former singer and Congressman Sonny Bono, who was involved in sponsoring a version of the Act. 

What Disney Characters Entered the Public Domain in 2024?

This year, the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse is now in the public domain. Originally released in 1928, this version of Mickey also appeared in the silent version of“Plane Crazy,” which introduced Minnie as his girlfriend.  

Additionally, two years ago, a version of Winnie the Pooh entered the public domain. This year, his pal, Tigger, is joining him. This is because the character’s first appearance was in a book entitled “The House at Pooh Corner,” published in 1928.  

Using the Characters Legally 

M-I-C-K-E-Y could still spell lawsuit if creators cross the line into misuse or infringement—Disney likely has an army of lawyers working overtime, particularly now.   

First of all, the only iteration of Mickey Mouse that can be used is the “Steamboat Willie” version, which is quite different from later versions. Creators can copy, share, and build only on this “Mickey 1.0.” He’s often considered a bit scrappier than later versions. If a creator uses a newer version of Mickey from something such as “Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse,” a show that aired on the Disney Channel in the 2000’s, they better be prepared to receive a “Cease and Desist” letter and/or face potential legal action. 

Also, creators must be cognizant of the fact that Disney owns many trademarks relating to Mickey, Minnie, Tigger and all of the characters it owns. What this means is creators cannot use works in the public domain to mislead consumers into thinking their created work is affiliated with Disney. For example, Serial Number 73223973 in the United States Patent and Trademark Office database is a mark called “Mickey Mouse,” and is registered in class 016, which covers comic books and strips. What does this mean to creators? The big mouse’s lawyers will likely come calling if you write a comic book called “Mickey Mouse,” even if you’re just using the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey. This is because you’re infringing upon its trademark of the “Mickey Mouse” wording. In short, creating merchandise that gives even the appearance of being associated with Disney is prohibited. 

Upcoming Disney Characters in the Public Domain

He “ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” but pretty soon, he’ll be in the public domain. Pluto, one of Disney’s adorable dogs, will be available in 2026, as his first appearance was in a film entitled “The Chain Gang,” which was released in 1930. After that, Donald Duck will enter the public domain in 2030, when the copyright expires on his first cartoon from 1934, “The Wise Little Hen.” As more and more Disney characters enter the public domain in the coming years, creators must still be sure to avoid running afoul (afowl for Donald!) of Disney’s other intellectual property rights. 

Resources:

(1)Jenkins, J. (n.d.). Public domain day 2024: Duke University School of Law. https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2024/#_ftn5

(2) Jenkins, J. (n.d.). Mickey, Disney, and the public domain: A 95-year love triangle. Duke University School of Law. https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/mickey/#jan1

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The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, provides access to empowering IP education for budding inventors and entrepreneurs. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.