Is Mickey Mouse in the Public Domain?

On 1st January every year we celebrate the array of works entering the public domain, as their copyright term expires. This year, entering the public domain [generally speaking] are copyright protected works created by people who died in 1953, for countries with a copyright term of life plus 70 years (e.g., UK, most of EU and South America); works by people who died in 1973, for countries with a term of life plus 50 years (e.g., New Zealand, and most of Africa and Asia); as well as films and books published in 1928 for the United States. 

Walt Disney Animation Studios' Steamboat Willie is one of the works that entered into the public domain this year, at least in the US. Whilst some are excited that the copyright in the first iteration of Mickey and Minnie Mouse has finally expired, others are sceptical that the reality is different. I debated this on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking episode; Dickens, Disney and Copyright, together with David Bellos and Katie McGettigan. 

Some of the key points are highlighted below but, first, here are some other works of note joining the public domain in 2024 [feel free to add more in the comments!]:

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág’s, not another name for the IPKat, but thought to be the oldest American picture book still in print.

The works of Dylan Thomas.

Harmsen van der Beek’s illustrations, including Enid Blyton's Noddy books.

David Herbert Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Songs by Hank Williams.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

Henrik Bull’s architecture design of Oslo’s National Theatre.

Herman Jacob Mankiewicz’s screenplay, Citizen’s Kane. 

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.

Lights of New York, the first US all-talking feature film directed by Bryan Foy.

Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation, by Margaret Mead.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography.

The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht.

Laurel and Hardy's first comic duo film directed by Leo McCarey and James Parrott, Should Married Men Go Home?

In countries with life plus 50 years, the works of art by Pablo Picasso, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, including The Hobbit and Lords of the Rings, enter the public domain. 

Alan Alexander Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner enters the public domain which means that Tigger will join his friends Winnie the Pooh and Piglet in the public domain. This also means a second instalment of the horror movie Winnie-The-Pooh: Blood & Honey 2 which now includes Tigger! 

Sir James Matthew Barrie’s play Peter Pan will enter the public domain in the United States but not in the United Kingdom. This is because, although the UK copyright expired in 1987, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides a special exception for the play. Section 301 confers a perpetual royalty right for the public performance, commercial publication, communication to the public of the play, or any adaptation of the play, on Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity.

Fuller list can be found here.

Steamboat Willie enters the public domain after 95 years 

Steamboat Willie is an American animated short film directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, which premiered in 1928. It was produced in black and white by Walt Disney Studios and featured both Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse for the first time. [Steamboat Willie was the third film to be produced with the Mickey Mouse character, but it was the first to be distributed. This was because Walt Disney had seen The Jazz Singer (the first film to synchronise sound, which came into the public domain in 2023) which inspired him to create one of the first fully synchronized sound cartoons.]

 Image: Doo Lee (CC by 4.0)
Steamboat Willie was published under 1909 United States copyright law which provided protection for 28 years from the date of publication and could be renewed for a further 28 years to a maximum of 56 years. So, the film’s copyright term would have originally expired in 1965. It came close to entering the public domain on several occasions but, as it happened, the regulation extended the term each time. [What a coincidence.] First in 1955, at which point the copyright was extended to 1986. It was then extended by the Copyright Act of 1976 which provided a copyright term extension for corporations by 47 years, giving it 75 in total, meaning it would expire in 2003. Lastly, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 moved the goalpost to 2023, giving Steamboat Willie a copyright lifespan of 95 years from first publication, and here we are. 

But, Steamboat Mickey is a registered trade mark 

So, technically the copyright in Steamboat Willie and the iterations of Mickey and Minnie Mouse depicted in the film entered the public domain in the US on 1st January 2024. However, readers will no doubt be aware that Disney has also registered Mickey Mouse in many iterations as trade marks. It has also not gone unnoticed that Disney have been using a clip from Steamboat Willie as a logo shown before its films since 2007. Therefore, this raises doubts that the work can be used in practice without infringing Disney’s trade mark rights. 

Uses of Steamboat Willie

Despite the fears there have already been at least three uses of the Steamboat Willie work [again, feel free to share if readers are aware of more!]. 

1. The image above, depicting Mickey Mouse driving his steamboat into the public domain. 

 Playing Kat and Mouse... 
2. Following in the footsteps of Winnie the Pooh’s horror film, Fewture Studios have premiered a teaser trailer for their horror film The Return of Steamboat Willie. They tweeted the tagline: "After 95 years of being locked away, Willie is free and he wants his Steamboat back." Watch the trailer here. 

3. In April 2023, comedian John Oliver announced that he would use the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse as the new mascot for his satire show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. And, indeed the poster for the upcoming season includes a giant Mouse with the caption “What are they gonna do, sue?”

Is Mickey Mouse in the Public Domain? Is Mickey Mouse in the Public Domain? Reviewed by Hayleigh Bosher on Tuesday, January 30, 2024 Rating: 5


  1. Back in the days when VHS was in its heyday, I used to collect VHS copies of classic (non-PC) cartoons. A couple consisted of early ones where the US copyright had evidently expired as they had not been released by their original film companies. The slip case of one had an image of one of the characters, and a notice stating that the image was taken from a frame of the film to indicate its contents and was not being used in a trade mark sense.

    I understand that, when television started affecting cinema attendances in the USA, many film companies sold their back catalogues to the TV companies or didn't bother renewing their copyrights in the less popular titles. Disney was an exception, maintaining ownership and normally refusing permission to broadcast them on TV.

  2. There's a horror video game too.

  3. Winnie-the-Pooh Fan:

    May I be permitted to supplement the observation that Alan Alexander Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner enters the public domain? I mention this particularly in the context of

    • the immediately preceding statement in the blog regarding countries with life plus 50 years;

    • and the immediately succeeding note that Peter Pan will enter the public domain in the United States but not in the United Kingdom.

    The duration of copyright in countries with life plus70 years including the United Kingdom has expired for authors who died in 1953 but AA Milne died after that and accordingly The House at Pooh Corner and AA Milne’s other works - novels, plays, poetry and so on - remain in copyright.


All comments must be moderated by a member of the IPKat team before they appear on the blog. Comments will not be allowed if the contravene the IPKat policy that readers' comments should not be obscene or defamatory; they should not consist of ad hominem attacks on members of the blog team or other comment-posters and they should make a constructive contribution to the discussion of the post on which they purport to comment.

It is also the IPKat policy that comments should not be made completely anonymously, and users should use a consistent name or pseudonym (which should not itself be defamatory or obscene, or that of another real person), either in the "identity" field, or at the beginning of the comment. Current practice is to, however, allow a limited number of comments that contravene this policy, provided that the comment has a high degree of relevance and the comment chain does not become too difficult to follow.

Learn more here:

Powered by Blogger.