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The earliest version of Mickey Mouse is now in the public domain. How does it affect you?

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Early version of Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie, enters the public domain in 2024Placeholder

One of the world’s most iconic characters—Mickey Mouse, waltzed into the public domain on 1st January 2024. Disney’s 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie turns 95 this year, which makes it a part of the public domain according to US copyright law. This means you can now use all characters from the film, including rodent darlings Mickey and Minnie Mouse, in your own ads and merchandising. 

However, there are still caveats you should consider before rushing to the drawing board. 

Indian brands will have to wait more 

Even though Steamboat Willie was originally made and released in the US, Indian courts recognise all copyrights around it. This is because both India and the US are part of the Berne Convention, an international agreement protecting the copyright privileges of artists from 180+ countries. 

The catch here is that India has its own copyright laws, which provide protection for much longer than the US in most cases. We consulted legal counsel Mahima Priyani to help us understand this. “Let’s break this down into two parts. First, all of Disney’s work has copyright protection in India. Second, Indian law provides copyright protection for 60 years after the last author’s death.” In Steamboat Willie’s case, the last living author can be considered to be director Ub Iwerks, who died in 1971. Hence, the copyright period arguably extends till 2031. 

This means all Indian brands and creators will have to hold their animated horses. If anyone in India chooses to ignore this and use Steamboat Willie as part of their branding or advertising campaigns, we have good reason to believe Disney will take immediate legal action. 

Disney loves Mickey 

Apart from being an important part of its history, Mickey Mouse is Disney’s greatest brand identifier. Naturally, protecting the copyrights around him is far from a Mickey Mouse operation for Disney. Infact, the brand once went so far as to suing three day-care centers in Florida for their life-sized murals of Disney characters. 

While Steamboat Willie is available for the public to remix and use, Disney will most likely litigate against any work that is closer to the later versions. Priyani explains, “Litigation is expensive business. If a brand is highly litigious about a character like Mickey, that’s only because he’s worth the trouble. The revenue that comes in from the copyrights and licensing over Mickey Mouse makes it worth Disney’s time and money to litigate so often.”  

Tricks of the trademark 

Apart from their copyrights over different versions of Mickey, Disney also holds several trademarks over him as a brand identifier. This means Disney can still sue businesses for trademark infringement over their use of Steamboat Willie. Avoiding this requires you to understand and tread the fine line between copyright and trademark laws. 

“Trademarks and copyrights are two very different protections offered by the law. You can claim a copyright over any original, creative work of yours like a blog, music, films, artistic works, or anything of a similar nature. It ensures that you get to earn a little revenue every time someone uses your work,” says Priyani, “Trademarks on the other hand, are specific identifiers like symbols, names and taglines that a brand uses to distinguish itself. A company can register their trademarks to make sure no one uses these symbols to mislead their consumers.” she adds. 

Mickey Mouse shaped graph explaining Mickey Mouse fair use!
Image adapted from “Mickey, Disney, and the Public Domain: a 95-year Love Triangle by Jennifer Jenkins and Sean Dudely, used under CC BY 4.0

This means Steamboat Willie can be on your ads and products as long as no-one thinks you’re acting on Disney's behalf or confuses your product as being associated with Disney. But, what actually counts as misleading a consumer? Most courts hold up the standard of a ‘reasonable person’ in this case. As long as the average, fairly reasonable person can look at your work product and tell that Disney is not involved, you should have a strong argument against any trademark infringement. 

Despite this, it is always best to adopt a cautious approach - using names or symbols that are identical or confusingly similar to registered Disney trademarks should be avoided. Another useful tip Priyani offers is, “For any type of content you put out, it’s always good to use disclaimers and show them prominently. They are a good way of ensuring that your audience knows you’re not working with Disney in any way.” 

You should, of course, remember that Disney believes in staying ahead of the curve. It has been using the following retro logo for the past few years to strengthen its brand association with Steamboat Willie (seen in the logo).

Disney studios retro logo featuring Steamboat Willie

Learning from the best 

Despite Disney’s litigious tendencies, Steamboat Willie is now a part of the public domain for all practical purposes, and there are plenty of ways you can use this for your benefit. All it would take is ample creativity, clear knowledge of your legal boundaries and a few examples to learn from.

Mint Mobile's Winnie-the-Screwed featuring Ryan Reynolds

What happens when an advertising team decides to have a little too much fun with a literary classic? Enter—Winnie-the-Screwed. This riotous Mint Mobile ad is a re-telling of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, which entered the public domain on New Year’s Day 2022. The ad sticks to the original book (including near-identical illustrations) and does not mention or mimic any later versions of Pooh, which gives Disney little-to-no room for legal retribution. As a result, the ad exists unbothered on YouTube with over 3.2 million views, despite being an on-the-nose parody of a prized Disney character. 

In the merchandising space, there’s probably no better example than NASA’s iconic signifiers. Almost every government agency in the US allows free use of their logos and brand identifiers, albeit subject to written approval from them. Luxury brand Coach was the first to use NASA’s ‘worm’ logo for their 2017 pre-fall “Space” capsule collection. Coach’s creative director at the time explained this decision by saying “There’s something about the time of the space program that just gives this feeling of nostalgia but also possibility.”

A helpful tip for Indian brands—like NASA, ISRO allows free use of the material available on its website as long as you follow these guidelines!

Digging deeper into the public domain

The public domain has inspired some of the most successful, ironically original brand campaigns of recent times. Case in point, Nestle’s 2018 Easter commercial draws inspiration from Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland to drive home the message of never being too grown up for candy. 

Make the public domain your brand’s playground. If Steamboat Willie isn’t enough to spark your creativity, try riffing off these famous works that are now in the public domain. 

In the United States

  • The house at Pooh Corner by A.A.Milne
  • Charlie Chaplin’s film The Circus
  • Buster Keaton’s film The Camera Man 
  • French Classic Passion of the Joan of Arc

In India:

  • Complete literary works of Dr. Rajendra Prasad
  • Complete literary works of Bengali author Hemendra Kumar Roy
  • Complete literary works of historian and Kashmiri author Amar Nath Kak

See the full list here.

 

In case you have some time on your hands, here are some popular characters that will enter the public domain in the US within the next two years 

  • Mickey Mouse as seen in Gallopin’ Gaucho and Plane Crazy in 2025
  • Popeye the Sailor Man in 2025
  • Betty Boop in 2026
  • Disney’s Pluto as seen in The Chain Gang in 2026

See the full list here.

It is worth mentioning that several of these iconic works were inspired by the copyright free material available at the time. While the definition of what’s original and creative are bound to change, there’s no denying that it takes an earnest effort to create something that people remember for a long time. 

Disclaimer: This article is solely to provide the readers with general information and understanding of the topics covered. As such, this does not constitute specific legal advice and is not to be used as a substitute for the same.

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