Earliest version of Mickey Mouse to become public domain in January

 December 18, 2023

Disney is about to experience what happens when copyright laws allow for an end to the longstanding protection of a popular character.

According to the Washington Examiner, the iconic Mickey Mouse character -- at least the earliest version -- will become public domain beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

That means the character, which first appeared in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, will be up for grabs by content producers, including artists and filmmakers.

U.S. copyright law states that once a character debuts, copyright protections can only last 95 years.

Jennifer Jenkins, a director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, was especially excited about the upcoming copyright expiration, which is undoubtedly one of the most significant in recent years.

"This is it," Jenkins said. "This is Mickey Mouse. This is exciting because it’s kind of symbolic. I kind of feel like the pipe on the steamboat, like expelling smoke. It’s so exciting."

There's one heck of a kicker, though. The earliest "Steamboat Willie" version of the iconic American cartoon character didn't speak, so any use of the mouse will come without words.

The Examiner noted:

Mickey entering the public domain next year means creators can only use the earliest version, meaning any public domain content based on Mickey Mouse can only use his Steamboat Willie version. This means that Mickey will not be able to talk, as the character did not speak any actual words in the short film.

One of the more recent high-profile copyright expirations came at the beginning of 2022, when the iconic "Winnie the Pooh" character -- also its earliest version -- became public domain. The expiration prompted several new pieces of content using the original character.

Notably, several news pieces regarding the upcoming expiration of Mickey Mouse's copyright protection came with a fact-check disclaimer that said while it's true the earliest version of the character will become public domain, Disney could still take legal action to "extend" the trademark.

"Only Mickey Mouse cartoons from 1928, including Steamboat Willie, and the versions of Mickey from those cartoons will enter the public domain soon, set to be January 1st, 2024. Additionally, Disney could still claim trademark status, extending Mickey's protection," the additional context note on X read.

Social media users, overall, reacted in lukewarm fashion to the news, likely due to Disney's recent spate of negative PR items in the press regarding its ongoing legal battles in Florida.

Only time will tell if Disney takes legal action to protect its iconic first version of Mickey Mouse.