Mickey Mouse’s Impending Copyright Expiration Explained

admin2021January 8, 2023

Mickey Mouse‘s copyright is due to expire soon — here is an explanation of the copyright’s expiration and how it may impact Disney‘s future. In January 2024, the copyright on the first story that ever featured Mickey Mouse will expire. This means that nearly 95 years after the first animated short film featuring Mickey Mouse, Disney’s most iconic character will enter the public domain. With the copyright expiration of Disney’s most iconic figure, many may think that this inevitably leads to other creators and members of the public being able to use Mickey Mouse in their own creative work in the future. However, this is an oversimplification.


Although the excitement surrounding the copyright’s expiration on Mickey Mouse is understandable and may lead to questions regarding what the future of Mickey Mouse films will look like for Disney, Disney will not lose all its rights and trademark on Mickey Mouse. In fact, Disney will lose Steamboat Willie‘s copyright soon, but the question of the copyright protection is more complicated than many Disney viewers would imagine, as the character of Mickey Mouse has been in many other films after Steamboat Willie. Mickey Mouse’s ongoing evolution throughout Disney’s history from that very first short film complicates his copyright status.

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Mickey Mouse’s Original Story Loses Copyright In January 2024

Steamboat Willie is the first Disney story featuring Mickey Mouse. Released in 1928, Steamboat Willie is not only one of Disney’s first animation films ever since the birth of the Walt Disney Company, but it also marks Mickey Mouse’s first appearance. Interestingly, Steamboat Willie isn’t just the third film featuring Mickey Mouse that Disney but it’s the first one to be distributed, as Walt Disney wanted to produce a cartoon with sound after the success of the Jazz Singer. In fact, Steamboat Willie is also one of the first cartoons with fully synchronized sound, making it a novelty at the time for Disney.

With Disney’s live-action movie remakes, copyright issues on Disney products have recently been subject to discussion. According to US copyright law, the rights for a character expire after 95 years after the publication of the original work. Disney will lose the copyright for Steamboat Willie in 2024, since the short animated film was produced and distributed in 1928. Similarly, this issue of copyright expiration is going to reoccur in the following years, with Disney losing the copyright over other iconic characters like Pluto and Donald Duck before 2030, if not renewed by Congress.

Steamboat Willie has been at the center of many copyright discussions in US copyright law. Disney has risked losing its copyright over the original cartoons more than once in the past. Firstly, the copyright was due to expire in 1983, due to US copyright laws in 1928 that protected works for 56 years from their creation. In order to protect Disney animated movies, Congress passed a new copyright act that protected works for 50 years after the death of the author, resetting the expiry date to 2003. In 1997, a new regulation was passed, extending Disney’s copyright over Mickey Mouse once again.

The Evolution Of Mickey Mouse Is Still Copyrighted

Mickey at the House of Mouse

The discussions about Mickey Mouse’s copyright expiration and the intervention of Congress in this matter may suggest how important the question of copyright law may be for Disney. However, this will have less effect on Disney and the future of Mickey Mouse than many may think. The copyright’s expiration, in fact, only pertains to Steamboat Willie, so the question of the Mickey Mouse’s copyright expiration will only involve Steamboat Willie itself. The expiration of the copyright will not involve any other film made after 1928 in which Mickey Mouse features as a character nor the trademark on the character.

Related: Every Movie & TV Show Trailer Released At D23 Expo 2022As proven by the recent discussion on Sherlock Homes copyright ownership, the rest of Mickey Mouse’s stories are still going to be copyrighted. As on the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse, the one present in Steamboat Willie, will enter public domain, every other subsequent Mickey Mouse film or evolution of the character is still protected by copyright law. In other words, the Mickey Mouse many know and love is still under copyright and will remain so until at least 2030, when the question of public domain and Disney’s characters may resurface, especially with no further change to the current copyright law.

Mickey Mouse Will Still Be A Registered Trademark

Mickey conjures up a spell in Fantasia.

It seems likely that Disney will maintain its copyright over Mickey Mouse for the foreseeable future. In particular, Mickey Mouse will remain under Disney’s property because it is a registered trademark. In fact, this would let Disney keep ownership of Mickey Mouse as its trademark potentially forever, thus allowing Mickey Mouse to feature in future and upcoming Disney films. Unlike copyright, which expires after a certain amount of years, trademark protection can endure in perpetuity, as long as Disney can claim that the character of Mickey Mouse is associated with the Walt Disney company itself.

Ultimately, Mickey Mouse will still to be a legally protected Disney product. The strong association between Disney and Mickey Mouse, one that the company itself has invested in, represents a strong protection for Disney as the trademark will not expire any time soon, giving Disney control over Mickey Mouse. Despite the copyright law and Steamboat Willie‘s copyright expiration, Disney’s approval is still required for others to use Mickey Mouse material, even the one that will eventually become public domain, in anything outside of fair use, thanks to the mouse’s trademark protection.

What this means is that Disney, now led by Bob Iger, still has control over Mickey Mouse and the use of the character. While Steamboat Willie will soon be entering public domain, which would open it up for fair use by virtually anyone, Disney would maintain its control over Mickey Mouse due to the trademark protection. In fact, while an artist may use the Steamboat Willie‘s version of Mickey Mouse for their own purposes, they could violate trademark if they, say, try to create their own brand off of the iconic Disney character’s image.

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