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Mickey Mouse and the public domain

Published by Ioana Liuta

This blog post was written by Donald Taylor, SFU Copyright Officer

The expiration of US copyright protection of early iterations of Mickey Mouse found in the animated film Steamboat Willie provides a wonderful opportunity to delve into the vagaries of copyright protection in different countries as well as the phenomena of “mutant copyright”.

In Canada, all works jointly created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks entered the public domain on January 1, 2022, 50 years after the death of Ub Iwerks. At the end of 2022 Canada extended copyright protection to 70 years after the death of the author, meaning not much will enter the public domain in Canada until January 1st, 2043.

Mickey Mouse is a work of “joint authorship” as it was a creation of two indivduals, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Copyright protection in works of joint authorship is based on the death year of the last surviving author/creator. Ub Iwerks outlived Walt Disney and died in 1971. So, you would think that Steamboat Willie’s Mickey wouldn’t enter the public domain in the USA until 2042 since the USA has a term of copyright protection of life plus 70 years. Why then are early iterations of Mickey entering the public domain in 2024? Because Steamboat Willie was released in 1928 under the USA’s 1909 Copyright Act where copyright protection lasted 28 years from publication and could be renewed once for a further 28 years. Not until 1976 did the USA adopt a term of copyright protection based on the life of the author. Various iterations of US copyright legislation over the years extended the copyright terms of works created under the 1909 Act until such works were eventually protected for 95 years after publication. Since Steamboat Willie was created in 1928, it fell into the public domain in the USA on January 1, 2024. Therefore, the early versions of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are now in the public domain in the USA. But later versions - like the Mickey with the red shorts and larger eyes - are still protected by copyright in the USA.

Rule of the shorter term

But what about states like Germany who have had a term of copyright protection of life plus 70 years since last century? Why is Steamboat Willie’s Mickey and Minnie also in the public domain there as of January 1, 2024 instead of waiting until January 1, 2042 (70 years after the death of Ub Iwerks)? Because some states, like the UK and Germany, include in their copyright legislation the “rule of the shorter term.” This means that if a work enters the public domain in the country of its origin, then it will also be in the public domain in the country implementing the “rule of the shorter term.” Steamboat Willie’s country of origin is the USA where it has now entered the public domain. Consequently, the UK, Germany and others who have “rule of the shorter term” in their copyright legislation will no longer protect it under their copyright legislation.

But many countries, such as Brazil, don’t have a “rule of the shorter term”. So, in Brazil, which has had life plus 70 term of copyright protection for many years, no version of Mickey and Minnie will enter the public domain until January 1st, 2042.

The copyright saga of Steamboat Willie illustrates well the importance of the statement “copyright is national”, meaning that you can’t assume that works protected/not protected in your country are afforded the same protection elsewhere.

Trademark and mutant copyright

Although the copyright in early versions of Mickey Mouse has expired in many countries, it’s not open season on copying Mickey. A variety of images from Steamboat Willie were trademarked by Walt Disney Corporation in the early years of this century. Therefore, any use of public domain Mickey will need to be done in such a way as to not run afoul of Disney Corp’s trademark in Mickey Mouse because these trademarks impact the ability to freely copy early images of Mickey Mouse. Why? Because trademark is a type of protection for intellectual property (IP). Unlike copyright, a trademark must be registered in each country in which the owner wants protection. Trademark protection must be renewed every 10 years in Canada and trademark renewals are limitless; they can be renewed as many times as the trademark owner wishes. Walt Disney Corp. has registered Steamboat Willie images of Mickey Mouse in all the countries in which it wants or can obtain this protection.

Normally, one form of IP protection can’t be used to extend the protection afforded to a work under another type of IP protection. For example, using trademark to extend IP protection after the expiration of copyright is not normally allowed. Attempts to do so are commonly called mutant copyright.

In most cases, the relevant national courts and trademark office will be of the view that the harms to the rights holder who is denied ongoing IP protection by trademarking a work when its copyright is set to expire are outweighed by the public benefit received from adding the work to the public domain.

But Mickey is different. An excellent argument can be made that allowing totally unfettered commercial copying of Mickey Mouse and other famous Disney characters would create mass consumer confusion since anyone could freely copy the characters and sell them. Consequently, consumers would be confused about the source of the products. Such a situation contradicts trademark’s purpose of avoiding consumer confusion about the origin of a product, and also its purpose to prevent free-riding on another company’s products and good will. So, the trademarking of various iterations of Mickey Mouse is not considered mutant copyright, but is instead viewed as a proper regulation of commercial markets.


Bosher, Hayleigh. “Is Mickey Mouse in the Public Domain?” The IPKat (blog). January 30, 2024. 

Cain, Sian. “Mickey Mouse’s First 24 Hours in the Public Domain: Slasher Flicks, Horror Games and NFTs.” The Guardian. January 2, 2024.

Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 539 U.S. 23, 25 (2003).

Forella, Michael A. III. “Balancing Mickey Mouse and the Mutant Copyright: To Copyright Trademark or to Trademark Copyright, that is the Question.” Marquette Intellectual Property Law Review 24, no. 1 (2020): 77-92.

Gard, E. Townsend. "J.D. Salinger and Copyright's Rule of the Shorter Term," Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law 19, no. 4 (2017): 777-816.

Rule of the Shorter Term. Wikipedia. Accessed Feb. 16, 2024. 

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