Mickey Mouse: A Journey From Copyright Protection To Its End

Khurana and Khurana


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Ever since the creation of the iconic character, pop-culture titan, and a Walt Disney legacy, Mickey Mouse has held much cultural significance in the realm of intellectual property.
India Intellectual Property
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Ever since the creation of the iconic character, pop-culture titan, and a Walt Disney legacy, Mickey Mouse has held much cultural significance in the realm of intellectual property. Given birth in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Mickey Mouse soon became a household name and a profit-making merchandise. However, as with all creative works, Mickey Mouse's copyright protection was not eternal and was bound to end at a certain stage. With that stage being reached today, much is left to see of what becomes of this American pop culture's dearest icons.

At the start of 2024, the copyright on the landmark animated short Steamboat Willie—the earliest appearance of Mickey Mouse—expired. This means that this early version of the beloved cartoon is now in the public domain, freely accessible to the wide web.

Keywords: copyright protection, intellectual property, legislation, mickey mouse, disney

How does Copyright Protection Work?

Copyrights are a type of intellectual property protection that provides its owner with the exclusive right to reproduce their works for a defined period of time. To take an example, literary works, theatrical works, musical works, creative works, cinematographic films, and sound recordings have all been given copyright protection under Section 13 of the Indian Copyright Act of 1957.

However, the Indian law wouldn't help much with our proposition. To carry forward with this blog, we would have to look at the current state of copyright law in the United States.

In the U.S., copyright protection is governed by the Copyright Act of 1976. According to this, copyright protection lasts for the author's life plus 70 years. For works created by a corporation, like Disney, copyright protection lasts for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.

However, it is to be borne in mind that this legislation and the concomitant copyright protection would not have been enacted if it weren't for Disney's fervent endeavors in trying to extend this copyright protection each time it neared expiration. Thus, the company started lobbying with Congress to materialize its ambition.

Hence, following this, in 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, more commonly known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. This Act essentially extended works created on or after January 1, 1978, to the author's life plus seventy years. For corporations, copyright protections extend for ninety-five years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever was shorter.

"Steamboat Willie" v. Modern Mickey:

However, it is to be noted that what has entered the public domain since the start of this year is only a version of the iconic Disney character. In other words, Disney still owns the rights, trademarks and copyright to every other version of Mickey Mouse but for this.

"Steamboat Willie" debuted in 1928, thereby Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney into mega-stardom. However, there are differences between the 1928 Mickey and the company's mascot today. For instance, the Mickey of "Steamboat Willie" lacks the current Mickey's gloves and oversized shoes, and his eyes are small black ovals without pupils.

Speaking to CNN, a Disney spokesperson said, "You can take 'Steamboat Willie' and do whatever you want with him....... Mickey Mouse, as we traditionally think of him, is trademarked, so he's still very much the ownership of Disney," she further explained.

The Creativity Debate:

Just like two sides of a coin, copyright protection attracts a lot of heated arguments concerning its advantages and disadvantages. Broadly speaking, it narrows down and comes to this- creativity. Critics argue that copyrights in general, and copyright extensions in particular, stifle creativity, prevent derivative works, favor corporate interests over the public domain's benefits, and promote banality.

However, if prevention of derivative works were really an issue, we would not have been seeing films like "Little Women," "The Atonement," "Call Me by Your Name," and many other countless pieces of art that have been adapted and inspired by books and literature. But that aside, does copyright protection really prevent creativity? Perhaps it does promote banality at the cost of being original. Or perhaps every major discovery takes birth from a source, a muse, or an earlier experiment that could not produce the same results?

On the other hand, proponents of copyright protection, including Disney, contend that longer copyright terms are necessary to incentivize creativity and protect intellectual property rights. Contrary to what the critics say, perhaps some protection of an artist's art gives him satisfaction, security, and a mark of respect. Maybe it does provide credibility with an assurance that your creation remains yours and you are known as its creator.

These notions are, however, subjective. But as with any other social issue. These questions have to be handled and answered objectively.

What does Mickey Mouse's Future Hold?

The entry of Mickey Mouse into the public domain has varied consequences for creativity and innovation. No longer bound by restrictive copyright laws, artists, filmmakers, and storytellers now have a newfound freedom to explore. This liberation has opened the gates to fresh interpretations, parodies, and adaptations that breathe new life into Mickey's timeless legacy.

Within a day of the end of the copyright saga, we witnessed the trailer for a slasher film featuring a masked killer dressed as Mickey Mouse. Horror parody director Steven LaMorte also announced a second untitled "Steamboat Willie" horror movie. In addition, independent video game studios have planned releases featuring "Steamboat Willie" Mickey Mouse.

Thus, the quick capitalization on Mickey's updated copyright status shows how iconic pieces of intellectual property can be quickly remixed and recycled in the digital age for art and profit.


In today's age of AI software, memes on the internet, online books, OTT platforms, and online marketing, this new phase in Mickey's life is bound to have one effect or the other. Whether it is put to use for a good purpose or if it vicissitudes into an online mess remains to be seen. However, one thing is sure: this issue will open new arenas of thinking in the context of intellectual property law, cyber law, and the like.


BELMONT UNIVERSITY, https://www.belmontentertainmentlaw.com/2022/03/04/disney-faces-battle-to-keep-mickey-mouse-character-out-of-public-domain/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2024).

MICHAEL E. KONDOUDIS, https://www.mekiplaw.com/the-mickey-mouse-copyright/#:~:text=In%202023%2C%20the%20copyright%20protection%20to%20the%20likeness,their%20creative%20works%20without%20Disney%E2%80%99s%20permission%20or%20payment (last visited Feb. 14, 2024).

FINANCE STRATEGISTS, https://www.financestrategists.com/financial-advisor/copyrights/ (last visited Feb 14., 2024).

U.S. COPYRIGHT OFFICE, https://www.copyright.gov/title17/ (last visited Feb. 15, 2024).

BELMONT UNIVERSITY, https://www.belmontentertainmentlaw.com/2022/03/04/disney-faces-battle-to-keep-mickey-mouse-character-out-of-public-domain/#:~:text=The%20Mickey%20Mouse%20Protection%20Act%20extended%20works%20created,or%20120%20years%20from%20creation%2C%20whichever%20was%20shorter (last visited Feb. 15, 2024).

CNN BUSINESS, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/12/30/business/disney-copyright-mickey-mouse-expire-2024/index.html (last visited Feb. 15, 2024).

BBC NEWS, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-67861538 (last visited Feb. 16, 2024).

VARIETY, https://variety.com/2024/film/news/steamboat-willie-horror-film-mickey-mouse-public-domain-copyright-1235849861/ (last visited Feb. 16, 2024).

YAHOO, https://www.yahoo.com/tech/mickey-mouse-copyright-expiration-inspires-235908810.html (last visited Feb. 16, 2024).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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