Early Mickey enters public domain… somewhat

Steamboat Willie

Much has been recently reported on early Mickey Mouse short films entering the public domain. We thought it worth a brief look at what’s going on.

The Laws

In the United States of America, all motion pictures published before 1978 are copyrighted for 95 years. Which means any film released in 1928 were under copyright that finished up on 31 December 2023. From 1 January 2024 all those films are now in public domain, in the USA.

Australian films from 1969 onwards it is 70 years for the date the material is made public. Most films before 1955 are now in public domain. But some films from before 1955, and those up to 1969, are a bit more complex. There are more details on the Australian Copyright Council website.

The films now in public domain

There are a few films that entered public domain. First up is silent version of Mickey Mouse “Plane Crazy” (17 May 1928), with the sound version (17 Mar 1929) entering public domain next year. Then the first two sound films: “Steamboat Willie” (18 Nov 1928) and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho” (silent 2 Aug 1928, sound 30 Dec 1928).

What’s not public domain

There’s a bunch of stuff still under copyright and trademark. Disney still owns the name “Mickey Mouse” and the character. And use of public domain work cannot mislead consumers into thinking your work is produced or sponsored by Disney.

What does this all mean?

People may share, adapt, or remix any material that is in public domain. But only that material.

You can’t use more recent stuff.

You can’t use the character “Mickey Mouse” or use that name. And especially not to sell anything.

If you want to read up more, we recommend this article from Duke University School of Law in the USA.

And if you’re keen to read up a bit more on the history of Mickey, our friends at ACMI wrote this piece a couple years back.

Let the good times roll.