When Walt Disney first released the cartoon short film Steamboat Willie in November 1928, it was groundbreaking. It was one of the cartoons to use synchronized sound, and would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed and popular cartoon films in the world.
But perhaps most famously, the cartoon introduced the world to the characters of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Mickey Mouse in particular quickly became one of the most iconic characters of the Disney brand. Today, he is featured in virtually every aspect of Disney’s branding. Hidden Mickeys–designs that show the outline of Mickey Mouse’s head–are placed all across Disney’s theme parks. Mickey Mouse is also the basis of multiple Disney television shows and movies, including The Mickey Mouse Club, which introduced audiences to popular celebrities like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling for the first time.
Disney has fought to keep its copyright of the famous cartoon character as long as possible, lobbying the U.S. government to extend copyright protection before it was originally set to expire in 1984. Many lawmakers agreed, and in 1976 the law was changed to allow owners to retain copyright protections for the duration of the life of the author plus an additional 50 years. In 1998, Disney once again successfully lobbied along with other entertainment companies to extend copyright protections to life of the author plus 70 years for a maximum of 95 years.
But in January 2024, the copyright on Steamboat Willie officially expired, and Mickey Mouse is now officially in the public domain. This means that now anyone in the U.S. can use the Steamboat Willie version of the Mickey Mouse character without fear of copyright infringement. Copyright laws vary by country, so in some places Mickey remains protected.
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Since the start of the year, a trailer for a Mickey Mouse horror film has been released while other digital creators have edited the footage from Steamboat Willie to make it sound as if Mickey is using profanity.
Nevertheless, Disney still retains some protections of the Mickey Mouse character. Versions of Mickey Mouse that were released after Steamboat Willie that feature his quintessential red shorts and big eyes remain protected.
“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,” Disney said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.
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