In a landmark event that opens the door for artists, filmmakers, and storytellers to unleash their inner Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse has officially entered the public domain without copyright protection.
After spending years under Disney’s lock and key, Mickey and his pals can now be incorporated into artists’ works as the copyright protecting the beloved character expired on 1 January 2024 after its 95-year term.
Other iconic characters, like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, have also tumbled into the public domain, ready for anyone to freely adapt, remix, and reimagine.
Disney, a company known for its aggressive defense of intellectual property, played a key role in advocating for the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended the copyright protection of its iconic characters to 95 years. Because of Disney’s lobbying for the law, it came to be colloquially known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.
The characters of Mickey and Minnie were introduced to the public through a 1928 short film Steamboat Willie. These works were originally slated to enter the public domain in 1984 after a 56-year term, but Congress extended the term by 20 years. With the 1998 Act, Congress further gave the characters a copyright extension, adding another 20 years to the clock till 2024.
This extension locked up a vast swath of our past, not just Mickey and Minnie, but other forgotten works and hidden gems. Scholars warned that it was a crippling blow to digitization, archiving, and ultimately, our ability to connect with the stories that shaped us.
The year 2024 marks the end of Disney’s exclusive claim to its most iconic character, while also playing a significant role in the advancement towards maintaining a rich public domain.
From literary gems like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera to musical marvels like Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, a cultural feast of new interpretations of old classics and samples of familiar tunes in unfamiliar tracks await us this year.
Copyright laws, however, vary depending on the work’s creation date.
In the US, pre-1978 corporate creations like Mickey Mouse face a 95-year copyright shield while newer works (published after 1978), like Harry Potter, fall within a copyright law closer to that of the European Union, where the intellectual property of an author is protected until 70 years following their death, after which it becomes available in the public domain.
However, copyright expiration does not mean an end to all restrictions. Navigating trademark laws, respecting the spirit of original works, and ensuring ethical use are crucial considerations.
In 2022, a low-budget horror film featuring a twisted take on the beloved Winnie the Pooh surprised audiences by raking in over $2.5 million globally after Walt Disney Studios’ exclusive rights to the character lapsed with the public domain entry of the original 1926 storybook by A. A. Milne, illustrated by E. H. Shepard.
The film was criticized for horrifying an entire generation that grew up watching Disney’s take on the beloved warm and fuzzy cartoon by turning it into a murderous monster.
Now in 2024, A. A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner which introduced the Tigger character, also illustrated by E. H. Shepard, has become a member of the public domain party.
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