In less than two years, the first animated short starring Mickey Mouse will become public domain, and Disney will no longer be able to ban other artists or corporations from utilizing the character’s likeness under US copyright law.
Of course, this assumes nothing changes between now and January 1, 2024, when the character is set to enter public domain. In the past, Disney has aggressively fought to reform copyright rules to benefit them and other firms with copyrights approaching their natural expiration date.
So yet, it does not appear that there will be any big changes to US copyright law – and if there are, it might indicate a major change.
Mickey originally appeared in the 1928 animated short “Steamboat Willie,” which will enter the public domain 95 years later, at the end of 2023.
In the short, Mickey appeared similar to how he does now, with the exception that he was wearing a hat (since he was directing a steamboat) and had fewer details than shown in more current depictions.
Mickey actually appeared in another short, “Hungry Hobos,” which was produced before “Steamboat Willie,” but never released, lost, and only found again in 2011, per The Daily Mail.
When Winnie-the-Pooh became a public domain character earlier this year, experts advised caution: characters and material created after the initial book’s release can be (and are) still protected by copyright, including characters like Tigger, who appeared in later books. The distinct Disney version of Pooh, which was stylized and did not look identical to the one in A.A. Milne’s original stories, is also protected by Disney’s trademark.