The year 2024 began with news that has left many people speechless: Mickey Mouse is now in the public domain. Several websites have been reporting this 'new' since 2023, saying that the character can be used in different ways by the public, such as horror films, games (one has already been confirmed), among other ways.

But not quite. Mickey from the first animation made by Walt Disney, Steamboat Willie. As explained by Kembrew McLeod, communications professor and intellectual property scholar at University of Iowa, it's just this character. “What goes into the public domain in particular is this appearance in this film,” he said.

What does that mean? Simple: that the other characters created after Steamboat Willie still belong 100% to Disney. Therefore, no one will be able to use Mickey from Fantasia, from Clube do Mickey, whatever, and use it for whatever they want.

Mickey Mouse is also a registered trademark

Mickey Mouse | Saiba qual é a versão do personagem que agora é de domínio público 1
Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, made this conveniently mouse-shaped explanation of what you can and can't do with the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse starting January 1, 2024. click here to know more.

New versions of Mickey Mouse remain protected by copyright laws as they apply to creative characters, films, books, plays, songs and more. And not by chance, Mickey Mouse is also a registered trademark. “Trademark law is entirely about protecting brands, logos and names – like Mickey Mouse as a logo or the name Mickey Mouse,” McLeod said. “And, of course, there is no end to trademark law,” he adds Ruth Okediji, teacher at Harvard Law School.

The Walt Disney company, among others, uses registered trademarks to expand its control over its intellectual property, as she recalled. “As long as the trademark remains distinctive in the provision of goods and services, the trademark owner can protect it.”

“It’s something that concerns copyright scholars like me,” she continues. “This effectively weakens the public domain by allowing trademark law to effectively extend the life of a copyrighted work. And I hope that Congress or the courts will restore full balance between the protection of creativity and the protection of the public domain, which is also the protection of creativity.”

“You also can’t just call your restaurant Mickey Mouse on January 1st,” laughs Okediji. “You can't say, 'I'm Mickey Mouse's restaurant.' That would be a clear trademark infringement.”

Steamboat Willie is based on another work, did you know?

“Here’s the irony,” says McCleod. “Steamboat Willie is based on a popular film of the time.” Steamboat Bill Jr. was a success Buster Keaton released earlier that year. Steamboat Willie turns out to be a play on the film's title.

“Mickey Mouse first appeared in a feature film that relied heavily on other copyrighted work that helped drive its popularity,” continues McLeod. “When you reference something that is popular, it will likely create broader audiences and audiences that will recognize that specific reference.”

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