After 95 years, Disney lost the copyright to the cult character Mickey Mouse in the USA at the start of 2024. This means that under US law, the famous cartoon character can now be copied at will without having to get permission from Disney. January 1st each year is Public Domain Day, when a number of works lose copyright protection in the United States.
This year, thousands of copyrighted works dating back to 1928 will lose their protection in the US and will now be available to the general public. This includes, among other things, the Disney short film "Steamboat Willie", which was released on November 18, 1928 and shows the comic characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse for the first time.
The rights were originally supposed to expire in 1984, but the Walt Disney Company successfully campaigned several times to extend the period of validity of copyright protection under US law. In 1998, a copyright reform was even nicknamed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”: The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term of copyright protection in the USA by another 20 years. Now, despite all efforts, “Steamboat Willie” is finally without copyright.
However, according to information from the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, there are restrictions on how the iconic figure can be used. The expired copyright only applies to the old version of Mickey Mouse from “Steamboat Willie”, and the trademark law remains with Disney. This means that further developments of the famous mouse must not give the impression that Disney itself is involved in the production.
Not only Mickey Mouse is now common property: other cult characters and legendary works by famous artists and cultural figures are now without copyright protection in the USA and are available for reuse:
The new public domain series includes the children's book classic "The House at Pooh Corner" (German title: "Pooh Builds a House") by A. A. Mine from 1928, in which the character Tigger is introduced. The copyright for Winnie the Pooh itself ended in 2022. Likewise, with the beginning of the new year, “Peter Pan” by J.M. Barrie his protection.
Books by numerous legendary authors such as the world-famous writer Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976), the writer and publisher Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941), the American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Frost (1874 - 1963) and the British writer D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930). The new list also includes Bertolt Brecht's play "The Threepenny Opera" as well as films such as Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus" and the crime thriller "Lights of New York."
Once a work becomes public domain, it may be legally distributed, performed, repurposed, reused, or sampled without the author having to grant permission or pay any money.
In Germany, copyright applies until 70 years after the death of the last person involved. In the case of the Mickey Mouse film, that would be the American animator Ub Iwerks, who died in 1971. Accordingly, “Steamboat Willie” would have to be protected until 2041, thanks to a bilateral copyright agreement between Germany and the USA from 1892.