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

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

Exploring the Copyright Expiration of America’s Beloved Icons

Every year, on January 1st, a new wave of artistic creations enters the public domain in the United States. This year, as of January 1, 2024, the copyright on works from 1928 expires, making them accessible to the public. Among the most famous and controversial additions to the public domain are Mickey and Minnie Mouse, two iconic figures in American pop culture. However, it’s important to note that only a specific iteration of these beloved characters will be entering the public domain.

The Rise of Mickey and Minnie Mouse:

In November 1928, Walt Disney Studio released “Steamboat Willie,” a groundbreaking seven-minute cartoon that introduced synchronized sound and featured Mickey Mouse as a steamboat pilot. While Mickey and Minnie had appeared in other shorts prior to this, it was “Steamboat Willie” that propelled them to widespread recognition and popularity.

The Battle for Copyright Protection:

Throughout the 20th century, “Steamboat Willie” came close to entering the public domain on multiple occasions. However, in 1998, a bill passed by Congress, often mockingly referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” extended the duration of copyright protection, ensuring that Disney’s iconic creation remained under their control. Rumors of Disney’s lobbying efforts to secure this bill added to the controversy surrounding the extension.

The Expired Lifeline:

Despite the efforts to prolong the copyright protection, the temporary lifeline for “Steamboat Willie” has finally expired. As of January 1, the 1928 version of Mickey and Minnie Mouse can be used in specific ways. According to Duke Law, one cannot create Disney merchandise or media, nor can they establish a theme park centered around the characters. Disney still retains the copyright to later versions of Mickey, including the beloved sorcerer Mickey from the 1940 film “Fantasia.”

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The Limitations of Copyright Expiration:

While the copyright expiration allows for certain uses of the 1928 Mickey and Minnie’s images, there are still limitations. The Duke Law blog explains that one cannot mimic Disney’s merchandise or media production. However, generic character traits such as cuteness and altered dance moves can be utilized. Additionally, any independently created content or original ideas are legally permissible. Individuals are free to choose their own color schemes and are not bound to the black and white aesthetic of the original characters.


The entry of Mickey and Minnie Mouse into the public domain marks a significant moment in copyright law. While the expiration allows for some creative freedom, it also comes with limitations to protect Disney’s intellectual property. As the public gains access to the 1928 versions of these beloved characters, it opens up new possibilities for artistic expression while still respecting the legacy and continued copyright protection of later iterations. The story of Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s journey through copyright law serves as a reminder of the complex and ever-evolving nature of intellectual property rights in the United States.