It was animation that launched the House of Mouse.
Steamboat Willie, a 1928 short film featuring an early, non-speaking version of Mickey and Minnie, is widely seen as a moment that changed Disney’s fortunes and made cinema history.
Their images are now available to the public in the US, after Disney’s copyright expired.
This means that creatives like cartoonists can now rework and use the earliest versions of Mickey and Minnie.
In fact, anyone can use the version without permission or cost.
But Disney warns that more modern versions of Mickey are still protected by copyright.
“We will of course continue to protect our rights in more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright,” the company said.
US copyright law states rights to characters can be held for 95 years, meaning the characters in Steamboat Willie enter the public domain on Monday, January 1, 2024.
These works can now legally be shared, performed, repurposed, reused, or sampled.
Early versions of Mickey and Minnie were just two works that entered the public domain in the US on New Year’s Day.
Films, books, music and other famous characters from 1928 are now also available to the American public.
These films include Charlie Chaplin’s silent romantic comedy, The Circus; British author AA Milne’s book The House at Pooh Corner, which introduces the character Tigger; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; and DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The UK has its own copyright regulations and different expiry dates. For example, Lawrence’s work remains under copyright until at least 2039.
Disney has faced losing the copyright to its original cartoons several times in the past.
The character was first expected to enter the public domain in 1984, but Congress extended that time frame by 20 years.
Before the next expiration date arrived in 2004, another 20-year extension had passed.