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Mickey Mouse is headed to public domain, along with these notable works

Dec 31, 2023, 3:39 PM

Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse, poses for a photo at the Pancoast Hotel in Miami, Florida on ...

Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse, poses for a photo at the Pancoast Hotel in Miami, Florida on Aug. 13, 1941. The earliest version of Disney's most famous character will become public domain on New Year's Day. (The Associated Press)

(The Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Mickey and Minnie Mouse are about to sail into the world of the public domain, along with countless other classic characters from literature and film, as 2024 arrives.

They will join a vault of ideas that no longer have intellectual property rights protection, allowing anyone to build on these works or simply share them without worry of copyright infringement. Most creative works now have 95 years of protection before copyright runs out.

While thousands of books, plays, movies and musical compositions, mostly from 1928 — and sound recordings from 1923 — will enter the public domain on New Year’s Day, also referred to as “Public Domain Day,” Mickey and Minnie might be the two most historic ones, yet.

A ‘symbolic’ entry

The addition of the duo is “symbolic” if anything, Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law and director at Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, wrote in a recent blog post. Walt Disney’s 1928 animated short films “Steamboat Willie” and “Plane Crazy” first introduced the beloved mice.

Jenkins, a top public domain expert, notes the Disney Company drew inspiration from the public domain to create many of its characters, both old and new; however, it also “pushed for the law that extended the copyright term” from 75 to 95 years, through the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act. The bill, which the late Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch authored, is sometimes even referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

Now, those two most iconic Disney characters are heading into the domain.

“Disney is both an emblem of term extension and its erosion of the public domain, and one of the strongest use cases in favor of the maintenance of a rich public domain. Mickey is the symbol of both tendencies,” Jenkins wrote. “The love triangle between Mickey, Disney and the public domain is about to evolve, and perhaps even resolve, in real time.”

It’s worth noting that only the 1928 versions of these two characters can be used without infringement. The characters went through many minor transformations over time, including Mickey getting white gloves in 1929. Every alteration of Mickey will remain under copyright protection until those also expire.

Other key children’s characters freed up

Some other iconic characters are also set to join the duo in 2024.

A.A. Milne’s “House at Pooh Corner,” which introduces the character of Tigger, turns 95 in 2024. Winnie the Pooh entered the domain at the start of 2022, which ultimately sparked the creation of a low-budget slasher flick, which portrayed Pooh in a much different light. It’s an example of the new ideas people may have for old characters.

Then there’s J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan; or, “the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” which enters the sphere as the result of a copyright oddity, according to Jenkins. She notes, in her annual report, the play originated in 1904 and a novel was published seven years later; however, it wasn’t formally sent through the copyright process until 1928, which is why it is only now headed into the public domain.

Other notable works going to the public domain

Meanwhile, work from many acclaimed authors, poets, playwrights, musicians, actors and directors will also join the world of public domain in the new year. This includes more talking motion pictures, after the first bunch entered the domain last year.

Written work

  • “Im Westen nichts Neues,” (All Quiet on the Western Front) by Erich Maria Remarque.
  • “Orlando,” by Virginia Woolf.
  • “Dark Princess,” by W.E.B. Du Bois.
  • “The Mystery of the Blue Train,” by Agatha Christie.
  • “West-Running Brook,” by Robert Frost.
  • “Millions of Cats,” by Wanda Gág. This is the oldest U.S. picture book still in print.

Films

  • The Circus,” directed by Charlie Chaplin.
  • The Cameraman,” directed by Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton.
  • The Singing Fool,” directed by Lloyd Bacon. A follow-up to “The Jazz Singer,” which is considered the first talking motion picture.
  • Lights of New York,” directed by Bryan Foy. Jenkins points out this was billed as the first “all-talking” motion picture.
  • The Last Command,” directed by Josef von Sternberg. Emil Jannings was awarded Best Actor in the first-ever Academy Awards for this role in this film.
  • In Old Arizona,” directed by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings. Warner Baxter won the second-ever Best Actor Oscar for his role in this film.
  • The Man Who Laughs,” directed by Paul Leni. This film inspired the Joker from the Batman series, according to Collider.

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Mickey Mouse is headed to public domain, along with these notable works