Welcome to the Public Domain, Mickey Mouse!

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Today, the Wikimedia community celebrates a milestone for free knowledge as the first ‘Mickey Mouse’ films from 1928 have entered the Public Domain – along with many other creative works from around the world

Today is January 1st, which means that it is Public Domain Day – the unofficial holiday on which the Wikimedia communities join creatives, archivists, and activists from around the world to celebrate art and science that is free to use by everyone. This year features a very special addition to the history of animated film: Steamboat Willie, the first published animated short featuring the character of Mickey Mouse, is now in the Public Domain. Along with many other creative works from around the world, the film’s copyright has expired in the United States, and it is now available for all. 

A clip from ‘Steamboat Willie’ showing Mickey Mouse (1928).

The global Wikimedia communities (volunteers and groups who contribute to Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects) will be celebrating this occasion by uploading hundreds of works that can now be used to illustrate and complement articles about many different subjects. For starters, a high-resolution, full-length version of ‘Steamboat Willie’ will be shown on the front page of the English-language Wikipedia today. To see all the work that will be part of the Public Domain, check out the expanding list on Wikimedia Commons.

“The Public Domain is about our shared culture: the art and beauty we’ve collectively inherited and will carry into the future,” says Selena Deckelmann, Chief Product and Technology Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation. “This is a special day to celebrate that copyrighted works ultimately belong to all of us.”

Just under eight minutes long, Steamboat Willie not only introduced the most popular of Walt Disney’s many cartoon characters, but it was also one of the first cartoons with a fully post-produced synchronized soundtrack. This contributed to the film’s popularity after its release in 1928.

The copyright in Steamboat Willie was originally set to lapse in 1984. Over the decades, the Walt Disney Company successfully lobbied to extend the duration of copyright under United States law, most famously in a reform in 1998, which received the nickname ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ because its most prominent beneficiary was Disney’s famous cartoon character. However, the extended term of protection expired yesterday.

Now, everyone is free to share and re-mix Steamboat Willie without being required to first obtain a license. This also applies to a large number of creative works published in 1928, such as the children’s book The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne and the symphonic poem An American in Paris by George Gershwin
However, it is important to note that the character of Mickey Mouse remains protected as a registered trademark, as only the copyright in the 1928 film has lapsed. Copyright in these works also continues to persist in a number of jurisdictions outside of the United States, as explained further below.

Dylan Thomas reciting ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’.

In some countries, the entire musical oeuvre of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev – including his most famous work, Peter and the Wolf – is entering the Public Domain on the basis of the legal principle that lets copyright protection end 70 years after a creator’s death. Other famous creations to celebrate in these jurisdictions today are the poem Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas, and the compositions of Romani-French jazz icon Django Reinhardt, most famous for the 1937 tune Minor Swing.

Sergei Prokofiev’s works are a great example of how difficult it is to draw the boundaries of the Public Domain. Under Russian copyright law, his work has already been in the Public Domain for a number of years, and many other jurisdictions have already followed suit. Yet, in the United States, the copyright in Peter and the Wolf was actually restored and extended until the year 2031 in a much-debated 1994 copyright reform, after it had already lapsed there. Prokofiev’s famous composition was cited as an example when the law was (unsuccessfully) challenged in the US Supreme Court. At the same time, Steamboat Willie will remain protected in a number of jurisdictions at least until the year 2042 because its co-creator, Disney associate Ub Iwerks, lived until 1971.

With these major works becoming free to enjoy, share, and re-use, Public Domain Day is not only a major event for today’s creatives and knowledge collectors like the volunteer Wikimedia communities, but also for all of us – as ‘consumers’ of knowledge.

By the time you are reading this, it is quite likely that a volunteer has already uploaded new Public Domain works to Wikimedia Commons, a library of free-to-use illustrations, photos, drawings, videos, and music that just recently reached a milestone of 100 million items. You will soon start seeing these works in the relevant Wikipedia articles. Thanks to the efforts of these Wikimedia volunteers, people around the world can see, share, and enjoy a wide range of creative works on Wikipedia and beyond. 

Lukas Mezger is a volunteer Wikipedia editor from Germany. He works as a media and IT lawyer and holds a Ph.D. in copyright law from the University of Kiel.

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