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One of the most recognizable fictional characters ever, Mickey Mouse, has entered the public domain, with the Walt Disney Company losing exclusive rights to early versions of the iconic cartoon.

US law allows a copyright to be held for 95 years, meaning Disney’s rights for Mickey Mouse’s first-ever appearance from ‘Steamboat Willie’ in 1928 expired on January 1, 2024.

Anyone can now use the cartoon mouse in paintings, novels, songs, and elsewhere, but with certain restrictions. Disney still has ways to protect Mickey Mouse as it will retain copyright over the character’s more modern versions for years to come. The company says it will continue to defend its trademarks, which could limit what creators are able to do.

“Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products,” a Disney spokesperson told the Associated Press. “That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires.”

An anthropomorphic mouse with red shorts, large yellow shoes, and white gloves, Mickey has become the symbol of the Disney brand, and one of the most recognizable and beloved characters worldwide. Shortly after drawing Mickey, Walt Disney drew him a girlfriend, Minnie, a female mouse with a polka-dot dress and a big bow on her head. 

Just one month after creating ‘Steamboat Willie’ in 1928, Walt Disney officially registered the Mickey Mouse character for copyright protection. Along with other companies, Disney successfully lobbied the US Congress to extend copyright lengths, pushing it to 95 years. Over the decades, Mickey and Minnie’s appearances in various non-Disney cartoons, as well as comic strips, films, and merchandise, have resulted in lawsuits due to copyright infringement.

Industry experts describe Mickey’s entry to the public domain as historic. “This is a big one,” the director of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Jennifer Jenkins, was quoted as saying. “It’s generating so much excitement in the copyright community – it’s finally happening.”

The list of works or characters entering the public domain in 2024 includes Tigger, who, like Mickey Mouse, made his first appearance in 1928. The book in which the bouncing tiger first appeared, ‘The House at Pooh Corner’, has turned 96. Other 1928 works include the novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence; E.M. Remarque’s novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, and Buster Keaton’s film ‘The Cameraman’.

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