When I was a kid I had a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt that I loved.
As the clock strikes midnight tonight, the iconic figure from that old sweatshirt is set to embark on a new chapter — Mickey Mouse will officially enter the public domain. For nearly a century Disney has carefully guarded its iconic mascot, but as this protection expires, it makes me wonder if Disney lobbyists have dropped the ball in permitting this new era of creative freedom? Don’t get me wrong, it never should have been extended in the first place but I’m surprised because up ’til now every time Mickey was about to enter the public domain new laws were passed that fiercely guarded the intellectual property (and as a side effect kept a lot of other works out of our collective culture).
There’s a deep dive from Center for the Study of Public Domain explaining how we got here.
It is not simply that Mickey is a famous copyrighted character. So are Sherlock Holmes and Winnie the Pooh, and while they entered the public domain with some fanfare, it paled in comparison to this event. I’d like to offer a tentative answer. The reason that this event gathers so much attention is that it is the story of a 95-year-old love triangle, a tangled drama that rivals any Disney movie for twists and turns. The protagonists are Mickey, Disney and the Public Domain, and their relationship positively exemplifies the social media weasel-words “it’s complicated.”
When we visited Disneyland in November, I picked up a new Mickey Mouse shirt that sports the 2013 iteration of the mouse. I also happened upon an earlier version at a thrift store and took a photo to compare.
I’m probably just getting old but my favourite will always be the 1980’s Mickey — but neither of these versions will be the one in the public domain on January 1st.
Mickey isn’t the only work to enter the public domain tonight, ABC News has more on this story including a short interview with Larry Lessig1:
Update: AI models are now being trained on public domain Mickey.
- Previously, Larry Lessig on Laws that Choke Creativity