On January 1, 2024, marked a milestone in the history of Mickey Mouse as an early version of this iconic character, featured in the 1928 short film “Steamboat Willie,” entered the public domain. This event signifies that, for the first time, Mickey Mouse is no longer exclusively under the copyright of the Walt Disney Company and the NFT market has already echoed this news.
Known as the symbol of the Disney brand for nearly a century, Mickey Mouse has evolved into one of the most iconic characters in American pop culture. However, according to U.S. copyright law, last updated in 1998, copyright can be held for a period of 95 years. Therefore, Disney’s exclusivity over this specific version of Mickey Mouse has officially come to an end.
While this event might suggest increased availability and reinterpretation of Steamboat Willie, it is important to note some limitations. Although the 1928 version is now in the public domain, more modern versions of Mickey Mouse will still be protected by copyright and trademarks. This means that any recreation closely resembling the current image of Mickey Mouse could face legal actions from Disney.
Disney Will Defend its Ownership of the Modern Image of Mickey
Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, pointed out that while the Steamboat Willie version can be reimagined in any way in the public domain, copying elements from the more modern versions would still be subject to Disney’s trademarks. Although the company has officially lost its rights to the early version of Mickey, it is likely that the company will vigorously defend the image of the mouse in its current form.
As expected, the event had a significant impact on the world of digital culture and NFT collections. Collections related to Steamboat Willie became extremely popular on the OpenSea platform, taking top spots on the trending list. However, Disney emphasized that the modern versions of the mouse are not affected by the expiration of Steamboat Willie’s rights, and the company is committed to protecting its copyrights and preventing confusion with the unauthorized use of its iconic characters.