Iconic characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse will officially enter the public domain on January 1 — at least the versions used in the 1928 debut, Steamboat Willie. Following 95 years of exclusive copyright protection, these characters — which have served as a symbol for the Walt Disney Co (NYSE: DIS) — will be free for artists, cartoonists, filmmakers, novelists, and songwriters to reinterpret and reimagine.
The expiration of Disney’s copyright over the earliest versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse is not just a practical change but also a significant symbolic milestone. Jennifer Jenkins, the director of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, describes it as a major event generating excitement within the copyright community.
Jenkins celebrated Public Domain Day on January 1 by publishing a list of works that will lose copyright protection, becoming available for creative adaptation. This year’s list includes Tigger, introduced in 1928, alongside other notable works like J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Agatha Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train, the landmark film The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus.
While Disney will retain copyrights for the characters’ modern versions for a few more years, there is anticipation about the creative possibilities that will arise post-January 1.
Recent examples from works that entered the public domain, such as adaptations of “The Great Gatsby” and “Winnie the Pooh,” provide a glimpse into the future possibilities for Mickey Mouse.
Jennifer Jenkins notes that “‘Just add zombies’ appears to be a popular trend,” citing instances like “The Great Gatsby Undead” and “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” the latter a controversial slasher film released in 2023.
However, legal experts suggest that Disney’s continued defense of trademarks could limit the extent to which creators can experiment with the characters. The trademark was originally scheduled to enter the public domain in 2004 but Disney was able to lobby for a 20-year extension successfully.
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