The Disney icon faces life in the public domain
On January 1, at the exact moment the glittering Times Square ball was touching bottom, Mickey Mouse’s copyright protection expired and the Disney rodent was released into the public domain.
What that means is that publishers, artists, filmmakers and game designers are free to do with Mickey what they will without fear of legal blowback. They can decorate, distort and defile him with facial hair, donkey ears or Groucho glasses, place him in compromising situations without his consent, or ridicule him in SNL-ish send-ups.
Not all Mickeys, though—just the grainy black-and-white version who starred in Steamboat Willie, Mickey’s silent-screen debut, in 1928. Later color versions, like the broom-besieged Mickey in Fantasia (1936) are still off the table. In addition, there is a long list of rules and restrictions that limit or ban the use of any Disney figure for commercial, branding or trademark purposes.
But what evil fun B-movie auteurs are already having with their new-found creative license. Director Steven LaMorte’s next project will feature a fiendish Mickey terrorizing passengers on a Manhattan ferry. “It’s a project I’ve been dreaming of,” he says, “and I can’t wait to unleash this twisted take on this beloved character to the world.” Last year saw the premier of the slasher film, Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, in which Pooh and Piglet, free of copyright restraints, become psychopathic killers. And AI-generated images of Mickey as gangster, insurrectionist or all-around bad guy are all over social media.
Steamboat Willie is just one of many works that have outlived their copyright and can be downloaded and toyed with free of cost and legal ramifications. Mickey’s co-stars Minnie and Pegleg Pete, as well as the original version of Peter Pan, are also yours for the taking this year. Pluto and Donald Duck will follow in 2026 and 2030 respectively, and King Kong in 2029. Felix the Cat, Bambi and Frankenstein have long been out of copyright.
Of course, the public domain isn’t the exclusive province of characters from vintage movies and children’s stories. There are also thousands—more likely hundreds of thousands—of literary works whose copyrights have expired. Many can be found in the free online library, Project Gutenberg. Here’s a sampling:
A Discourse on the Evils of Dancing (1846)
A Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth and Their Proper Remedies (1849)
How to Cook Husbands (1898)
One Hundred Proofs That the Earth Is Not a Globe (1885)
Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented (1896)
Practical Skunk Raising (1915)
Why Not Eat Insects? (1885)
Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching (1896)
The last one is surely worth a look if rodents are your thing and a copyright-free Mickey has only whetted your appetite. Just saying.