Welcome to the public domain, Mickey Mouse

A screenshot of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie from 1928.

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It’s finally happened: after nearly a century, Mickey Mouse has slipped off Disney’s copyright leash. The first versions of the iconic cartoon character, seen in Steamboat Willie and a silent version of Plane Crazy, enter the public domain in the US on January 1st, 2024. (An early version of Minnie Mouse is also fortunately included.) There’s still a complicated mess of protections around Mickey, but today is a moment public domain advocates have awaited for decades — and there are plenty of other exciting new entries as well.

Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, as usual, has a roundup of prominent works whose copyright protections lapse in the US today. The list includes sound recordings from 1923 and works in other media that were published in 1928. Among other things, that covers:

  • D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous, oft-censored Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
  • J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
  • Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, both in the original German
  • The original German composition of Threepenny Opera song “Mack the Knife”
  • W.E.B. Du Bois’ Dark Princess
  • A. A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner, which introduced the character of Tigger
  • The film The Man Who Laughs, a Victor Hugo adaptation widely known for inspiring the look of Batman villain the Joker
  • The musical composition for Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)”
  • M.C. Escher’s Tower of Babel woodcut

You can find a slew of public domain sound recordings for download at the Library of Congress National Jukebox. And if you’re inspired by the above media or any other works entering the public domain this year, Techdirt will be hosting its sixth annual Public Domain Game Jam to celebrate making games based on them.

For ongoing characters like Mickey Mouse, of course, copyright law is particularly complicated. The public domain version of the character doesn’t include significant design changes made in later works, like Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey from Fantasia in 1940. And you can’t produce a work that falsely represents itself as a Disney production or a piece of official merchandise, since Mickey Mouse is also a registered Disney trademark. Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain director Jennifer Jenkins has a far more comprehensive explanation of the law on Duke’s blog.

The public domain is supposed to be the final destination of any copyrighted work — it’s part of a compromise that acknowledges the benefits of letting artists and thinkers control and profit from their work in the short term while freely building on each other’s ideas in the long term, a balance Disney itself relied upon when making fairy-tale adaptations like Snow White and Cinderella. (It’s also a vital factor in letting archivists preserve old media after its creators die or can no longer be found, since it allows making copies without legal concerns — and only a tiny sliver of copyrighted works remain commercially valuable for the entire term of protection.) But it was frozen for 20 years in the US thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which was derisively dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” for delaying Steamboat Willie’s entry into the public domain. Though despite the nickname, Disney was far from the only company lobbying for its passage.

The result is that Mickey Mouse has become a symbol of extended copyright protections and (with varying degrees of fairness) Disney’s vested stake in intellectual property law. When Disney angered Republican politicians by criticizing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, for instance, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) proposed a nigh-nuclear IP law rollback in the name of stripping “woke corporations like Disney of special copyright protections.” We may well see legal fights over the precise limits of public domain Mickey, the way we have other characters like Sherlock Holmes — but today, it’s a good day to think about new uses for old media.

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