(CNN) — Mickey Mouse no longer belongs solely to the Walt Disney Company.
On January 1, 2024, an early version of the entertainment company’s mascot, featured in Walt Disney’s 1928 short film, “Steamboat Willie,” entered the public domain for the first time.
The good-humored rodent, which has been synonymous with the Disney brand for nearly a century, has grown into one of the most iconic characters in American pop culture. But since US copyright law, last updated by Congress in 1998, allows copyright to be held for 95 years, Disney’s sole claim to the character has officially ended.
While we might start seeing more of Mickey, there are caveats.
In a statement to CNN, a Disney spokesperson said “More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.”
There are differences between the 1928 Mickey and the company’s mascot today. The Mickey of “Steamboat Willie” lacks the current Mickey’s gloves and oversized shoes, and his eyes are small black ovals without pupils.
Rebecca Tushnet, a Harvard Law School professor, said that while the public domain allows anyone to re-envision Steamboat Willie in any way they want, you cannot copy elements of the more modern Mickey Mouse. Disney still has a trademark on those.
“Whatever you do, to be protected against copyright infringement claims … you really have to be making new stuff and be sure you are basing it on Steamboat Willie,” she said.
Tushnet said that although Disney will have to “grudgingly concede” its hold on the image of Steamboat Willie, the company will likely sue anyone who recreates a version of the cartoon that more closely resembles Mickey Mouse.
The Disney spokesperson told CNN that the company will “continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”
Tushnet predicted that one of the first places we may see recreations of Steamboat Willie is on Etsy — though one wrong step may open small sellers and artists up to litigation from Disney.
“Unfortunately, those people are precisely the kind of people who are unlikely to have the resources to actually figure out the legal boundaries,” Tushnet said.
However, some exceptions exist to Disney’s tight grip on its mascot. Even the more modern version of Mickey Mouse can be shown for educational purposes, satire or parody.
Mickey isn’t the only children’s character to enter the public domain recently. In 2022, the copyright on A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh character expired, opening the floodgates for more fantastical interpretations of the yellow teddy bear, including the 2023 horror film, “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.”
Tushnet said it’s “definitely possible” that the early version of Mickey could get the same treatment.
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