Public Domain Day 2024: It's D-Day (D as in Disney)

January 1st is one my favorite times of the year. Not just because it's a public holiday and a good time to make New Years Resolutions, but because it's also an important day for human knowledge. Every January 1st, a new set of creative works enter the public domain, where they are allowed to be copied, remixed and enhanced by anyone without any legal repercussions.

After a highly controversial 20 year freeze on this phenomenon that lasted from 1998 to 2018 (due to this travesty of a bill), we've been enjoying a steady stream of new works entering the public domain for the last five years.

But 2024 has been a highly anticipated year for the public domain for a very specific reason. It's this cartoon:

For those not familiar, this is Steamboat Willie. It's a very historical cartoon short film for multiple reasons. It's the first cartoon with fully synchronized sound, it's the first cartoon to star world famous icon Mickey Mouse (and Minnie Mouse), and it's arguably the creative work that kickstarted the Walt Disney empire (if you don't count the earlier Alice Comedies series).

As of January 1st, 2024, Steamboat Willie is officially in the public domain. That means that the whole world now has full creative freedom to do whatever they wish with Disney's first Mickey Mouse cartoon. In fact, I just exercised my creative freedom by embedding this previously copyrighted work into this blog post. Disney previously had the right to sue me for distributing this cartoon without their permission; now they don't. That's the power of the public domain.

Steamboat Willie entering the public domain is also of symbolic importance. For the longest time, Disney has been one of the staunchest advocates of copyright extension. They're one of the biggest reasons why copyright terms (which previously lasted 56 years) now last a whopping 95 years. People have literally lived healthy lives and died within the copyright span of this black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon. After copyright terms had alredy been extended multiple times in the past, Steamboat Willie could have entered the public domain back in 2004. But Disney spearheaded that aforementioned travesty of a bill) that prevented new creative works from entering the public domain for 20 long years. Given the timing of it all, that bill being informally called the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act" makes sense.

Because of Disney's actions in helping extend the copyright term to an absurd duration, Steamboat Willie had become a symbol of the uphill battle that the public domain faces against the interests of big corporations. To see Steamboat Willie finally enter the public domain closes a highly frustrating chapter in the ongoing struggle for creative freedom and free-flowing human knowledge.

But there is a reason why Disney fought to hold on to Steamboat Willie's copyright for so long. It's not just the cartoon that's in the public domain. Without sounding hyperbolic, Mickey Mouse is in the public domain as well.

To temper expectations, it's not a total free lunch just yet. Only the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse is in the public domain, whereas subsequent incarnations (such as his colored design or his modern design with updated eyes) still remain in copyright. Artists also have to deal with the fact that Disney owns the trademark on Mickey Mouse. Trademarks are supposed to protect the brand of the trademark owner, so Disney (in theory) has the power to go after anyone who publishes a Mickey Mouse work that can be mistaken as coming from Disney itself. We have no idea how legally enforceable this trademark ownership is in the context of derivative creative works, but hopefully it's not some legal loophole that can be weaponized as an infinite copyright glitch.

But no matter what happens from here on out, this is still a monumental Public Domain Day to celebrate. Steamboat Willie is in the public domain, as is Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Bad Pete. As far as creative freedom is concerned, we're in uncharted territory now, and I couldn't be more excited.

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