Earliest Mickey Mouse Film Officially Enters Public Domain

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Photo Credit: Ub Iwerks (Public Domain)

The earliest film featuring Mickey Mouse has entered public domain this year as it was created in 1928—ending 95 years of copyright protection for ‘Steamboat Willie.’

This version of Mickey Mouse is quite different from the red overall-clad mouse that most people around the globe would recognize. The non-speaking 1928 animation features both Mickey and Minnie Mouse with drastically different designs.

In creating this version of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney took inspiration from the vaudevillian antics of Charlie Chaplin. The cartoon was the third version of Mickey & Minnie to be created by Walt and his partner Ub Iwerks, but the first to see public release.

“Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film, ‘Steamboat Willie,’ people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences, and authentic products,” a Disney spokesperson said to the Associated Press. “That will not change when the copyright in the ‘Steamboat Willie’ film expires. We will continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.”

The entry of the first version of Mickey Mouse into public domain has sparked some questions about current copyright law. Disney pushed for the extension of copyright law from 75 years to 95 years in 1984 when these original cartoons were expected to hit the public domain. In 2004, Congress added another 20 year extension at the behest of copyright holders.

Outside of the House of Mouse, several other works entered the public domain on January 1 including sound recordings from 1923 and works in other media published in 1928. Some of the significant works on that list include D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, J.M. Barrie’s play ‘Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’, the musical composition for Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)”, Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in its original German, and the original German composition of Threepenny Opera song “Mack the Knife.”

Looking to hear some of the public domain sound recordings from 1923? You can check out the Library of Congress National Jukebox.