The Controversial Entry into the Public Domain: Mickey and Minnie Mouse

The Controversial Entry into the Public Domain: Mickey and Minnie Mouse

The Copyright Expiration of the 1928 Icons of American Pop Culture

Every year, on January 1st, a new wave of books, movies, and artistic creations enters the public domain in the United States. This year, the spotlight falls on two iconic figures of American pop culture: Mickey and Minnie Mouse. However, there is a catch. Only a specific iteration of these beloved characters is entering the public domain, leaving room for debate and controversy.

The Rise of Mickey and Minnie Mouse:

In November 1928, Walt Disney Studio released “Steamboat Willie,” a groundbreaking seven-minute cartoon that revolutionized the company. This short film, featuring Mickey as a steamboat pilot, utilized synchronized sound, a relatively new technology at the time. While Mickey and Minnie had appeared in other shorts before, it was “Steamboat Willie” that propelled them to widespread fame and adoration.

The Battle for Copyright Protection:

Over the course of the 20th century, “Steamboat Willie” came close to entering the public domain on multiple occasions. However, in 1998, Congress passed a bill that extended the duration of copyright protection, safeguarding Disney’s rights to the iconic cartoon. Often referred to mockingly as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” rumors circulated that Disney’s lobbying efforts played a role in the bill’s passage.

The Public Domain Arrival:

As of January 1, 2024, the copyright on the 1928 Mickey and Minnie Mouse images has expired, allowing for their use in specific ways. Duke Law provides a comprehensive breakdown of the permissible uses, highlighting the restrictions that still apply. Individuals are prohibited from creating Disney merchandise or media, meaning they cannot open a mouse-themed park with Mickey iconography. Disney continues to maintain the copyright to later versions of Mickey, including the renowned sorcerer Mickey from the 1940 film “Fantasia.”

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The Nuances of Copyright Law:

According to Duke Law, certain aspects of Mickey and Minnie’s characters are fair game for use. While the original Mickey did not speak intelligibly in a high voice, individuals are free to create a talking mouse with a squeaky voice. Generic character traits, such as adorableness and less jaunty dance moves, can also be incorporated. Additionally, anything that is independently created or devised is legal, allowing for personal color schemes instead of adhering strictly to black and white.


The entry of the 1928 Mickey and Minnie Mouse images into the public domain marks a significant moment in copyright law. While the expiration of copyright provides opportunities for creative expression, it also raises questions about the balance between intellectual property protection and the public’s access to cultural icons. As the legacy of Mickey and Minnie continues to evolve, their enduring popularity ensures that their influence will be felt for generations to come.