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Mickey Mouse Enters the Public Domain

An early version of Mickey Mouse is now available for anyone to use in their creative work.
A black and white Mickey Mouse wears a hat and holds onto the wheel of a boat.
The Walt Disney Company

Mickey Mouse has changed a lot since 1928, when he appeared in the movie Steamboat Willie.

For 95 years, Mickey Mouse was owned by only one company—Disney. By law, no one else was allowed to make money selling pictures or movies featuring the famous character. But now that’s changed. Mickey, or at least one version of him, is in the public domain. In other words, he’s basically public property.

To understand what that means, let’s go back to 1928—just over 95 years ago. That year, Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse and made a movie about him called Steamboat Willie. Disney asked the U.S. government to copyright Mickey Mouse, which meant that no one else could copy the character. Anyone who did would be breaking the law. But under U.S. law, some older creative works—including art, books, movies, and fictional characters—can be copyrighted for only 95 years. After that, they enter the public domain, and anyone can copy them. On January 1, 2024, many creative works entered the public domain. Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse was one of them.

The Walt Disney Company

Watch a short clip from the 1928 movie Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse.

Not every version of Mickey Mouse is in the public domain. Mickey has changed a lot over the years. Today’s Mickey Mouse has larger eyes than the original, and he wears gloves. The modern Mickey Mouse is still under copyright.

Now that the 1928 Mickey Mouse is in the public domain, experts say he can appear in books and movies, on T-shirts, and more without permission from the Walt Disney Company.

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Fun Fact

Disney character Goofy presents Mickey Mouse with a large cake with the words Happy Birthday.

© RKO Radio Pictures

November 18 is Mickey Mouse’s birthday. The movie Steamboat Willie opened on that day in 1928. This was Mickey’s third movie, but it was the first one to be successful.

When Cartoons Began

If you love Pixar and Disney movies like Toy Story and Moana, check out Fantasmagorie. This short animated movie was released in 1908, not long after movies were invented. Fantasmagorie is totally silent. (No one figured out how to add a full soundtrack to a movie until the 1920s.) But it does show drawings that appear to move, just like today’s cartoons!

Émile Cohl

Cartoon Magic

© marcovarro/stock.adobe.com

How can you make a drawing of a person, or a car, or anything else look like it’s moving? You can use a process called animation. The video shows how people create animation without computers. Learn more about how animation works, and how computers have helped, at Britannica!

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Word of the Day

expiration

Part of speech:

noun

Definition:

: the fact of coming to an end or no longer being valid after a period of time : the fact of expiring

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