An early version of Disney’s Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain on January 1

American animator and producer Walt Disney drawing Mickey Mouse Steamboat Willie Ca 1943.

American animator and producer Walt Disney drawing Mickey Mouse Steamboat Willie Ca 1943.Photo 12/Alamy Stock PhotoCNN — 

In just a few short days, an early version of Disney’s most iconic character will join the public domain for the first time.

For nearly a century, the image of Mickey Mouse has been married to the Walt Disney Company brand, but on January 1, 2024, Disney’s copyright of “Steamboat Willie,” Walt Disney’s first short film featuring Mickey Mouse, will expire.

That means that one of the company’s earliest iterations of its beloved rodent will become available for public use.

“Steamboat Willie” vs. modern Mickey

“Steamboat Willie” premiered in 1928, helping launch Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney into the stratosphere. Since US copyright law, which was last updated by Congress in 1998, allows copyright to be held for 95 years, Disney’s sole claim to the character is about to end.

Mickey isn’t the only classic character to enter the public domain in recent years. On January 1, 2022, the copyright on A. A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh character also expired. That has opened the door for more creative interpretations of the anthropomorphic teddy bear, including the 2023 slasher film, “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.”

Will we similarly see Disney’s mouse mascot reimagined? Stacey Lee, a Johns Hopkins Carey Business School professor, said it’s possible — but with caveats.

“You can take ‘Steamboat Willie’ and do whatever you want with him,” she said.

“However, Mickey Mouse, as we traditionally think of him, is trademarked, so he’s still very much the ownership of Disney.”

There are differences between the 1928 Mickey and the company’s mascot today. The Mickey of “Steamboat Willie” lacks the current Mickey’s gloves and oversized shoes, and his eyes are small black ovals without pupils.

In a statement to CNN, a Disney spokesperson said the modern version of Mickey will not be affected by the copyright expiration.

“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,” the spokesperson said.

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.”

Disney isn’t giving up its famous mouse

Due to the company’s trademark on later iterations of Mickey Mouse, you won’t see Mickey serving as another company’s mascot either, Lee said

“Just like the Nike Swoosh and Tiffany Blue, Disney owns Mickey,” Lee said. “It cannot be used in that recognizable way for advertising.”

Despite the copyright expiration, adopting Disney’s famous mouse may prove “a tricky thing to do,” Lee said. “If they feel that you’re diluting their brand, if they feel like you’re tarnishing their brand, that’s problematic and they’re going to sue you.”

However, some exceptions exist to Disney’s tight grip on its affable mouse. Even the more modern version of Mickey Mouse can be shown for educational purposes, satire or parody, Lee said.

The Disney spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the company plans to be proactive in protecting its brand.

“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, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters,” the spokesperson said.

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