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| 1 minute read

It's all a bit Mickey Mouse

As copyrights expired on the stroke of midnight, a fresh collection of vintage artistic creations entered the public domain on 1 January 2024. ‘Public Domain Day’ sparks opportunities for anyone to utilise, modify, and explore these once protected creations. In the spotlight this year is the initial cinematic portrayal of Mickey Mouse.

The Mickey Mouse stepping into the frame probably isn’t quite the familiar character you grew up with. It is the original black-and-white Disney persona as he appeared in the 1928 animated films “Steamboat Willie” and the silent version of “Plane Crazy” that entered the public domain on 1 January 2024. The evolved versions of Mickey seen in later copyrighted works like ‘Fantasia’ remain off-limits….for now.

Disney played a pivotal role in advocating for the extension of copyright laws in the US, ensuring the safeguarding of characters like Mickey Mouse for almost a century. In pushing for the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, which added another 20 years of protection for many artistic works, some sceptics mockingly referred to it as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. The initial cinematic portrayal of Mickey Mouse is now free to progress from his idyllic steamboat and move into slasher flicks and horror games.

The protection of fictional characters presents intricate challenges, encompassing copyright, design and trade mark rights. While the US copyright for the original ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse has just expired, trade mark renewals have no such limitations. Trade mark registrations for character names like Mickey Mouse are relatively straightforward due to their inherently distinctive nature; and through extensive use and public recognition, such marks also become increasingly easy to enforce. Even as the copyright for the ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse expires, the more modern iterations remain entirely unaffected. Disney emphasises that these contemporary versions will persist as central figures in the company's storytelling, theme park experiences, and merchandising. Disney will surely remain vigilant in safeguarding its rights over the newer versions of Mickey and other copyrighted works to prevent consumer confusion stemming from unauthorised use.

Perhaps through gritted teeth, Disney’s message to creators can only be to crack on and have fun with the public domain Mickey Mouse but beware…make sure it doesn't mislead the public or encroach upon the extensive array of trade marks and copyrighted iterations of Mickey still very much owned and enforced by Disney today.

Using a variety of intellectual property (IP) rights offers a comprehensive shield to safeguard various aspects of your creations or innovations. Copyright protects original expressions, trade marks protect brand identities, and patents secure inventions. Employing an array of IP rights ensures holistic protection, defending against infringement, enabling market exclusivity, and preserving the distinctiveness and value of your intellectual assets in different spheres.

It'll be interesting to see what the future holds for Mickey.


Steamboat Willie lost US copyright protection on 1 January 2024 – prompting a stream of films, games and parodies that will likely displease Disney


disney, mickeymouse, copyright, ip, intellectualproperty, brands & trade marks, creative industries