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Mickey Mouse has entered the Public Domain: What does this mean?

Mickey Mouse has entered the Public Domain: What does this mean?

Co-authored by Wendy Phan


  • Disney has fought to keep its copyright over Mickey Mouse for 95 years. However, the earliest version of Mickey Mouse in the short film Steamboat Willie which was created in 1928 has entered the public domain as of 1 January 2024.
  • Anyone can now use, publish, copy or distribute the early version of Mickey Mouse without seeking permission or making payment to Walt Disney.
  • However, users should be aware that Mickey Mouse is still trademarked by Disney and they still have substantial control over the famous cartoon character.

In this blog, we will navigate the complex landscape of Copyright law and how it impacts how we produce and share material in the Australian Context.


Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in Disney’s 1928 black-and-white short film, Steamboat Willie. Since his first appearance, Mickey Mouse quickly became one of the most iconic characters of the Disney brand. He virtually featured in every aspect of the Disney brand and has become a longtime icon for Walt Disney.

Accordingly, Disney has fought to maintain their copyright over the famous cartoon character and has extended their copyright over Mickey Mouse 4 times since 1928. However, after 95 years of ownership over the famous mouse, the earliest version of Mickey Mouse has now entered the public domain as of 1 January 2024.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that grants the creators of the material exclusive legal rights to determine how their work can be used for a certain amount of time with respect to the material that they have produced. The creators can provide licences to other parties to authorise the use, copy, publication, and distribution of the copyrighted material.

For the material or works to be protected under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth), the work must be produced by the creator’s own artistic and intellectual efforts and has not been copied from another person’s work. The material may be in the following forms:

  •   Films;
  •   Music;
  •   Artistic works such as digital images or paintings;
  •   Literature;
  •   Software programs.

Rights & Infringements

In Australia, the protection of artistic and creative property is regulated under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) (“the Copyright Act”). Under the Copyright Act, a person who is not the owner of the copyrighted material and without the owner’s licence could be found to be infringing the Copyright holder’s right if their conduct or work relates to the whole or a ‘substantial’ part of the copyrighted material.

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How long does this protection last?

There is no registration or other formalities necessary for the protection of copyright in Australia. Instead, copyright automatically applies once the work has been made public or recorded in some way.

The duration of the copyright protection is dependent on various factors such as:

  •   The nature of the works;
  •   When it was made; and
  •   Whether it has been published.

However, this protection will generally last for the creator’s life plus 70 years. In some situations, the duration is based on the year of publication. In these situations, the copyright protection will last 70 years after it was first published.

Once the copyright expires, the material is deemed to have entered into the public domain. This means that anyone can use, publish, distribute or copy the material without seeking permission from or making payment to the copyright holder.

Mickey Mouse Entering the Public Domain

With the early Mickey Mouse now in the public domain, anyone can use the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse without seeking permission and making payment to Disney. However, even though Steamboat Willie has entered the public domain, the later versions of Mickey Mouse are still protected by copyright laws and Mickey Mouse remains a registered trademark of Disney. This allows the company to maintain its control over the character.

What is the difference between a registered Trademark and a Copyright?

While Trademark is also another form of intellectual property, it differs from Copyright in terms of the material that it protects and the duration of the protection.

In Australia, a registered trade mark is registered under the Trade Marks Act 1995 (Cth). Under the Trade Marks Act, any ‘sign’ can be registered as a trade mark. The Act provides a list of what is considered a ‘sign’ which extends to logos, scents and word marks.

In this regard, Disney still owns trademarks for the Mickey Mouse name and signature symbols associated with the Mickey Mouse character such as his ears and gloves. Unlike Copyright protection, Trademark protection will continue as long as Disney continues to use Mickey Mouse as a brand, icon and mascot.


At Coutts, we understand with the rapid advancements of technology, it is often difficult to understand and navigate your rights and entitlements when it comes to intellectual property law.

It is important to protect your brand and image to ensure that the goodwill you build in your brand and business is protected. If you wish to explore how to protect your brand, Coutts can assist you every step of the way.

Further, if you think you think that your copyright has been infringed or have been accused of copyright infringement, it is important to seek legal advice. Coutts can assist you in such circumstances and provide you with advice regarding your options.

Coutts is here to help protect the rights of people and organisations by helping clients navigate the complexities of intellectual property law, to help individuals and businesses protect their brand, image and their creative assets.

Should you require assistance with trademarking or copyright, don’t hesitate to reach out to Coutts‘ Commercial Law Team.

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Melissa Care - Campbelltown Lawyers

Melissa is a Senior Associate at Coutts Lawyers & Conveyancers working from our Campbelltown Office and has extensive experience in the areas of Civil Disputes & Litigation, Building and Construction Disputes, Commercial Litigation & Employment Law for both corporate clients and individuals.

Melissa holds a Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Commerce (Majoring in Marketing), Graduate Law Diploma from the College of Law; and has been admitted to the Supreme Court of NSW and the High Court of Australia.

For further information please don’t hesitate to contact:

Melissa Care
Senior Associate
1300 268 887


Wendy Phan

Wendy joined the Coutts team in July 2023 as a Paralegal, after completing an internship. Wendy works in our Commercial Law & Litigation and Wills & Estates teams, from our Narellan office.

Wendy is currently in her final year, studying a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Wollongong.

Wendy is passionate in all areas of law and is eager to help people be heard and understood

For further information please don’t hesitate to contact:

Wendy Phan
1300 268 887

Contact Coutts today.

This blog is merely general and non-specific information on the subject matter and is not and should not be considered or relied on as legal advice. Coutts is not responsible for any cost, expense, loss or liability whatsoever to this blog, including all or any reliance on this blog or use or application of this blog by you.

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