As of January 1, 2024, Mickey Mouse, the Steamboat Willie version, is now public domain as the copyright to the mouse has now expired, but that actually doesn’t mean the mouse is free to use.
A lot of characters and works have become public domain at the start of 2024, one of my favorites is Tigger, and the first version of Mickey Mouse (and Minnie) is also copyright free.
Using public domain characters can be a boon to an independent creator and can make for interest takes on the characters, and get market recognition. Sadly it also means you get all those terrible horror movies made to cash in on a known property.
I certainly have plans for the 100 Acre Wood gang to join the Night Guardians in the future (spoiler). The case of the mouse though is a lot more complicated, because the Steamboat Willie version is still trademarked, and the one rule I know about trademarks is, if you don’t enforce your trademark, you lose the right to that trademark.
- So, does Steamboat Mickey belong to us? In copyright terms, yes, the mouse is now public domain and you are free to use that version of Mickey and Minnie in your works.
- Do I think the legal use of Steamboat Mickey is trouble free? absolutely not, the character is still trademarked and Disney is known for their fanatical protection of their properties.
- Can you leverage fair use? Maybe? Keeping it small, like my one off illustration for this article should be fine, but the use and corruption of the image in the upcoming slate of horror movies/ games may gain legal attention from the house of mouse, as they seek to protect the image of Mickey.
I should also note, for the last couple of years, I have been including Winnie the Pooh designs in my Teepublic store, and while my art bear is firmly based about the original E.H Shepard public domain look of the characters. I still deal with constant DCMA notices from Disney, over characters that bear no resemblance, accept in name, to the Disney versions of the characters.
The conclusion is, public domain is a great resource to pull from and make characters your own, but always be careful with its use my friends 🙂