I’m going to get in an early contender for “understatement of the year” here: copyright law is complicated. It becomes even more complicated when it intersects with trademark law, but the bottom line is that copyright protects works and trademark protects brands. For that reason, there’s no time cap on registered trademarks: as long as corporations keep renewing their registration every 10 years, they can protect product names, logos, and character designs indefinitely.
Though the “Steamboat Willie” short as a complete work has now entered the public domain, both the name “Mickey Mouse” and the modern design of Mickey Mouse as we know him — with his distinctive white gloves — are registered trademarks. In a statement to CNN, a Disney spokesperson made it clear that not much will change in 2024:
“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. That will not change when the copyright in the ‘Steamboat Willie’ film expires. More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the ‘Steamboat Willie’ copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.”
You may even run into trouble if you try to use the most famous image from “Steamboat Willie” — of Mickey Mouse spinning the steamboat wheel and cheerfully whistling the old vaudeville tune “Steamboat Bill.” Walt Disney Animation Studios made that part of the original short into a production logo, which is now one of numerous registered trademarks featuring Mickey.
Copyright or no copyright, the mouse always wins. (Well, almost always.)