The original version of Mickey Mouse was created in 1928 by Walt Disney. In the decades since then, the character has changed a lot, from adding color to significant modernizations. However, the copyright on the original version of the character expires in 2024, moving Mickey Mouse into the public domain. But, that doesn't mean that all of Mickey Mouse will be public domain, and it doesn't mean that we'll see the character being used to market new and unrelated brands.
What is copyright?
Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. It gives creators of original material the exclusive right to further use and duplicate that material for a given amount of time. This means that the original creators of products and anyone they give authorization to are the only ones with the exclusive right to reproduce the work. Works are considered original when they are independently created by a human author and have a minimal degree of creativity. Examples of unique creations include novels, art, poetry, musical lyrics and compositions, computer software, graphic designs, film, original architectural designs, and website content.
However, copyright does not protect ideas, discoveries, concepts, theories, brand names, logos, slogans, domain names, and titles2. For an original work to be copyrighted, it has to be in tangible form. In the U.S., the work of creators usually is protected by copyright laws until 70 years after their death. If the original author of the copyrighted material is a corporation, the copyright protection period is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years, whichever expires first.
The expiration of Steamboat Willie
The first appearance of Mickey Mouse was in the black and white animated feature Steamboat Willie. That piece was published in 1928 by the then-newly founded corporation that would become the Walt Disney Company. 95 years later brings us to the end of 2023, which will be ending in just a few days. At the end of the year, the 95 year copyright will expire, meaning that the original version of Mickey Mouse will no longer have a valid copyright.
While the character and the film are entering the public domain, it doesn't mean that the character as a whole will therefore be usable by everyone. Artists that want to make use of that version of the character can, within the realm of their artistic expression. However, other versions of Mickey Mouse, a character which has evolved over the years, will maintain their copyright.
In addition, the company retains a trademark on the character as a "corporate mascot and brand identifier," so don't expect him to become the mascot for your local pizza place. A spokesperson for The Walt Disney Company explained to The Associated Press how the change will work.
Ever since Mickey Mouse's first appearance in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with Disney's stories, experiences, and authentic products. That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires.
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. We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.
So, you might see derivative works of the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse, artists still need to be careful how and where they use the character in their art. There is a line, and you should not cross it, because Disney is a very litigious corporation.