Mickey Mouse and the Public Domain Game

Steamboat Willie in the short film Steamboat Willie. | Source: Polygon

To much fanfare, Disney’s iconic character Steamboat Mickey officially entered the public domain on January 1, 2024, after 95 years of copyright ownership by Disney. First released in 1928 in the silent short films Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy, this early iteration of the Mickey Mouse we know today has grown, along with the Disney brand itself, into one of the most recognizable cartoon characters to date. Let’s dive into why this happened and what it means for Mickey Mouse and Disney as a whole.

Copyright law started at a national level in the United States with the Copyright Act of 1790 which set an initial 14-year time frame for copyright protection over a work, with an additional 14-year optional renewal. The idea of the law was to give artists and innovators an incentive to create new works by giving them exclusive ownership rights over their products. However, it was also important for lawmakers to set a time limit on that right – eventually, new generations could extend upon these works. Now you may be wondering, how did it take so long for Steamboat Mickey to enter the public domain if the time limit is only 14 years? Well, that’s because, since the initial law, Congress has passed numerous laws extending the time frame for ownership. 

Public domain laws passed in 1831, 1909, 1976, and 1998 all served to extend the limit to the 95-year number it is today. Famously, Disney played a large role in both the 1976 and 1998 laws, as they aggressively lobbied Congress for extensions to the law. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act is often referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act for that very reason. 

It’s also important to note that Steamboat Mickey entering the public domain isn’t quite the same thing as Mickey Mouse entering the public domain. Since Steamboat Mickey was originally black and white, the Mickey Mouse with red overalls and yellow shoes that we all know today is still well under the hands of the Disney corporation. 

That version of Mickey Mouse will likely stay forever under Disney’s control. Recognizing that continually extending copyright law into perpetuity was a dubious plan, Disney switched to the equally mundane world of trademark law to protect their famous mouse. Trademark law works to protect logos and other devices that companies use to distinguish their products from competitors. Some famous examples of protected trademarks include Apple’s Bitten Apple, Nike’s Swoosh, and McDonald’s Golden Arches. Importantly, as opposed to copyright law, trademark protection has no time limit, meaning that we will likely never see Mickey Mouse in the public domain. 

So although you probably won’t be getting any cheap Mickey Mouse merchandise anytime soon, there’s still a lot to be excited about with Steamboat Willie available for public use. Like the Steamboat Willie horror movie recently announced to be in production, I’m sure that we’ll be seeing this iconic mouse around a lot more in the coming years. 

About the Author

Max Chen
Max Chen is a junior at IMSA who lives in 01 D-wing. He is from Champaign and is very excited to serve as a Staff Writer for The Acronym. Outside of writing, he likes to play guitar, tennis, and videogames.

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