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The OG Mickey Mouse Finally Hits the Public Domain Next Week

January 1, 2024 won’t just be the start of a new year. It’ll also see Mickey and Minnie Mouse enter the public domain.

Come that date, Disney’s exclusive copyright on the two iconic characters’ Steamboat Willie incarnations from 1928 will have run out, after which anyone can do anything they want with them. So if you’ve got a song, cartoon, movie, whatever, starring one or both of those characters that you’ve been sitting on for some time? Get ready to stand up and let that thing out into the world. This marks the first time ever that the two mice are available to be used by the general public, and it’s definitely a win for anyone who felt like they had to stop their creative pursuits to avoid getting sued by Disney.

How did we get to a point where one of the largest companies in the world has owned this specific version of two characters for 95 years? At first, this Mickey and Minnie were set to enter the public domain back in 1984 after what was already a sizable 55-year run. But in 1976, Congress’ 1976 Copyright Act gave a 20-year extension to all copyrights that were approaching public domain back then. After lobbying from Disney and other companies, the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” was formed in 1998, making it so that copyrights’ lives were extended another 20 years—which remains in place to this day.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Steamboat Willie

Law professor Jennifer Jenkins, who also serves as director for the Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, called this “exciting” in an interview with the Associated Press. To Variety, she noted how the soon-to-be ended copyright is “generating so much excitement in the copyright community. It’s finally happening.” Her words really underline how momentous this all is: in the time that Steamboat has been copyrighted and had it extended twice, so much in the world has happened, to say nothing of how large (and litigious) Disney has become in its 100-year lifetime. It’s likely that most of our grandparents have been born and died over the course of this 95-year ordeal.

In a statement to the AP, Disney stressed that it’s only the Steamboat versions of Mickey and Minnie that are in the public domain now. The Mickey that audiences are more familiar with “will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company,” according to the statement. Naturally, Disney also took the moment to reaffirm that it’ll “continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.”

Still, the idea of a Mickey and Minnie, along with Tigger (from Winnie the Pooh, whose copyright also expires that day) being owned by the public is notable in and of itself. It’ll be interesting to see what people do with the opportunity presented to them. Hopefully, it’s not all just zombie and slasher movie riffs.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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