“Steamboat Willie” in the Public Domain: What it Means (and Doesn’t Mean)

Collier Curran

On January 1, 2024, “Steamboat Willie,” Walt Disney’s iconic 1928 short film,[1] entered the public domain to significant internet fanfare. The film, one of the first to use synchronized sound, debuted the character of Mickey Mouse.[2] Since it has entered the public domain, X (formerly Twitter) and other social media sites have been flooded with videos[3], drawings[4], and memes[5] of the original Mickey Mouse character featured in the short film. Nightmare Forge Games has even announced a horror video game featuring the character, to be released later this year.[6]

Under current copyright law, copyrighted works created on or after January 1, 1978 are generally protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.[7] Anonymous works or works for hire have a copyright term of 95 years after publication, or 120 years after creation, whichever is shorter.[8] Copyright terms have been expanded over the years, due in part to lobbying by Disney and other entertainment companies[9]; the most recent expansion, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, was colloquially dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”[10] However, despite Disney’s efforts, copyright protection in “Steamboat Willie” has finally come to a close.[11]

But what does this mean? Entering the public domain makes a work available for use in ways that were previously protected (reproduction, creation of derivative works, public display, etc.).[12] Therefore, “Steamboat Willie” fans are generally able to play the film for friends—or strangers—and create memes using content from the film without penalty under U.S. copyright law. However, only the copyright in “Steamboat Willie” has expired; there are still valid copyrights in later films or television episodes featuring the modern version of Mickey Mouse.[13] Therefore, any new and creative expression of Mickey made by Disney after 1928 is likely still protected.[14] Further, Disney still holds a trademark in the character of Mickey Mouse, meaning that the character cannot be used in a way that “is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive” consumers about the source of a product.[15] This adds a tricky element for anyone looking to sell products featuring the character.

Although “Steamboat Willie” and its main character are now fair game in the United States, this may not be the case in foreign jurisdictions.[16] The UK, along with much of the EU, follows the “rule of the shorter term” for American works, meaning that “Steamboat Willie” is likely in the public domain in these jurisdictions as well.[17] However, other jurisdictions have unique rules; anyone looking to reproduce “Steamboat Willie” in another country should consult copyright attorneys in that jurisdiction.[18]

The entering of “Steamboat Willie” into the public domain highlights the finite nature of copyright protection, as intended by the American Constitution.[19] Creators should feel free to use “Steamboat Willie” as inspiration for their own works, so long as they remain mindful of copyrights and trademarks still in play.


[1] Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Steamboat Willie, YouTube (Aug. 27, 2009), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBgghnQF6E4 [https://perma.cc/5XRP-35CL] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127113715/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBgghnQF6E4].

[2] Anna Gordon, Mickey Mouse Is Now in the Public Domain After 95 Years of Disney Copyright, TIME (Jan. 2, 2024), https://time.com/6551496/mickey-mouse-public-domain-steamboat-willie/ [https://perma.cc/UL62-YD6D] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127221208/https://time.com/6551496/mickey-mouse-public-domain-steamboat-willie/].

[3] See, e.g., @VelPepperVT, X (Twitter) (Jan. 19, 2024, 5:43 PM), https://x.com/VelPepperVT/status/1748476380679901617?s=20 [https://perma.cc/YB9E-H4RQ] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127221037/https://twitter.com/VelPepperVT/status/1748476380679901617?s=20].

[4] See, e.g., @SethKearsley, X (Twitter) (Jan. 17, 2024, 10:55 PM), https://x.com/SethKearsley/status/1747829927595184412?s=20 [https://perma.cc/5DB5-7P7E] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127221446/https://twitter.com/SethKearsley/status/1747829927595184412?s=20].

[5] See, e.g., @pourmecoffee, X (Twitter) (Jan. 1, 2024, 7:50 PM), https://x.com/pourmecoffee/status/1741985364519039101?s=20 [https://perma.cc/42W9-5TTG] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127222521/https://twitter.com/pourmecoffee/status/1741985364519039101?s=20].

[6] Kay Tenbarge, Mickey Mouse Copyright Expiration Inspires Horror Movies, Video Games and Memes, NBC News (Jan. 2, 2024), https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/internet/mickey-mouse-horror-movie-slasher-trap-public-domain-rcna131897 [https://perma.cc/D7P9-NFM4] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127221714/https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/internet/mickey-mouse-horror-movie-slasher-trap-public-domain-rcna131897].

[7] 17 U.S.C. § 302.

[8] Id.

[9] Gordon, supra note 2.

[10] Lawrence Lessig, Copyright’s First Amendment, 48 UCLA L. Rev. 1057, 1065 (2001).

[11] Disney is known for fiercely protecting its copyrights. The New York Times reports that Disney required that a daycare center remove an unauthorized Minnie Mouse mural and told a stonemason that Winnie-the-Pooh cannot be carved into a child’s gravestone without copyright infringement. Brooks Barnes, Mickey’s Copyright Adventure: Early Disney Creation Will Soon Be Public Property, N.Y. Times (Dec. 27, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/27/business/mickey-mouse-disney-public-domain.html?searchResultPosition=6 [https://perma.cc/D3SA-RZLB] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127210550/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/27/business/mickey-mouse-disney-public-domain.html?searchResultPosition=6].

[12] 17 U.S.C. § 106.

[13] For current versions of the character, see Mickey Mouse, https://mickey.disney.com/ [https://perma.cc/J6WT-RTPX] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127222815/https://mickey.disney.com/] (last visited Jan. 27, 2024); see also Jennifer Jenkins, Mickey, Disney, and the Public Domain: A 95-year Love Triangle, Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain (2024), https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/mickey/ [https://perma.cc/XND4-YN7U] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240127223104/https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/mickey/] (explaining copyrights of later iterations of Mickey).

[14] Jenkins, supra note 12.

[15] Id. (quoting 15 U.S.C. §§ 1114, 1125(a)).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at n. 2a.

[19] U.S. Const. art I, § 8, cl. 8 (“securing for limited Times to Authors . . . the exclusive Right to their . . . Writings” (emphasis added)).