Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain on January 1, 2024

"Steamboat Willie" marks the first appearance of Mickey Mouse (apart from an earlier test screening). In the 1928 cartoon, Mickey is a happy-go-lucky, animal-abusing deckhand on a river steamboat, captained by a violent, oafish captain.

On January 1, 2024, the cartoon will enter the public domain. What does that mean, exactly? As Jamie Lang of Cartoon Brew explains:

What does that mean for Mickey and the Steamboat Willie short? After expiration, anyone will be able to screen the original short without permission from Disney. It can also be sold by third parties, although Disney has already made the film free online, so sales will likely be minimal. The film and its characters can also be used by anyone wishing to feature the characters in original stories or artwork.

The Catch: Disney can and almost certainly will still be very protective of the Mickey Mouse character, as it still owns the trademark. A trademark can be renewed indefinitely and is meant to prevent marketplace confusion. What that means is that any public-domain use of the Steamboat Willie characters cannot be perceived as coming from the trademark holder, in this case, Disney. In any case where there is a possibility that consumers could assume that Disney is behind the use, expect the company to act.

And here's what Erica Allen, an intellectual property lawyer from DiAngelo Law told Bay News 9 about Steamboat Willie's copyright expiration:

"That means everybody in the public has the ability to use that creation for their own interpretations, their own versions," said Erica Allen, an intellectual property attorney in Tampa Bay with DiAngelo Law.

To be clear, it's only the version of Mickey Mouse from "Steamboat Willie" that anyone in the public can use without permission to create new stories and new art. That Mickey Mouse has a long rat-like black nose, basic oval eyes with no pupils and a long, spindly, curvy black tail. Any future iterations of Mickey Mouse – including any showing Mickey Mouse in color – are still under Disney's control.

I like the idea of comic books and cartoons starring the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse, which is the cutest and funniest version.

Aaron Moss of the excellent Copyright Lately blog has an article about the many other notable works entering the public domain in 2024. They include another Mickey Mouse cartoon called "Plane Crazy," Carl Theodor Dreyer's film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus, A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner (first appearance of Tigger), Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.