More Than Just Mickey: Chaplin, Peter Pan, ‘Western Front’ Enter Public Domain

Today, Jan. 1, isn’t just New Year’s Day — it’s also Public Domain Day, where thousands of cinematic treasures, literary classics, Great American Songbook selections, and works of art see their copyrights expire and enter the public domain.

The headliner this year is the fair use of Mickey Mouse — at least, the Steamboat Willie version of the beloved character — as that copyright expiration has been anticipated for years. However, there’s much more than just Mickey entering the public domain in 2024.

Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, annually tracks the expiring copyrights on what’s become a national holiday for copyright junkies. Among the non-Mickey highlights in 2024: films by Charlie Chaplin (The Circus), Buster Keaton (The Cameraman) and Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc); novels by W.E.B. DuBois, D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), and Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front); and songs by Bessie Smith, Cole Porter, the Marx Brothers, and Bertolt Brecht (notably, the German version of The Threepenny Opera’s “Mack the Knife”).

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Other works entering the public domain after their 95-year (for published works) or 100-year (for song recordings) copyrights expired include the 1928 play The Front Page (which was previously restaged as the films His Girl Friday in 1940, The Front Page in 1971, and Switching Channels in 1988), Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (paging Kenneth Branagh), the oft-covered (perhaps too oft-) show tune “Makin’ Whoopee,” and the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, which inspired the Batman villain the Joker. (That first version of the Joker, by the way, enters the public domain in 2035, a year after the earliest Detective Comics incarnation of the Dark Knight.)

Taking advantage of Public Domain Day, someone has already uploaded The Man Who Laughs in full onto YouTube, with zero repercussions.

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In 2022, the big story of Public Domain Day was the arrival of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (whose fair use was quickly capitalized on with a slasher film), and as that author’s House at Pooh Corner enters the public domain in 2024, the character of Tigger — introduced in that book — can now join his brethren in fair use. Similarly, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is also now in the public domain, as that character was first published for copyright purposes in 1928; however, the Disney version of Pan remains under protection, as that film was released in 1953.

As for Mickey (and Minnie Mouse), the public is now free to use the Steamboat Willie version of the character in their own creative ways, with some caveats: For starters, any use of “Mickey 1.0” must not suggest it is produced by or representative of Disney at large. It also cannot infringe on Mickey’s later look, as those versions remain under trademark.

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“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,” a Disney spokesperson said prior to Public Domain Day.

“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,” the Disney spokesperson added.

For Disney, the more harrowing Public Domain Day perhaps arrives in a dozen years, when the Fantasia version of Mickey — the blueprint for the modern character culled from 1940’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — sees its 95-year copyright expire in 2035.

“Disney is both an emblem of term extension and its erosion of the public domain, and one of the strongest use-cases in favor of the maintenance of a rich public domain,” Jenkins wrote in a Public Domain Day post focused on the Mickey situation

“Mickey is the symbol of both tendencies. Ironies abound. It may not be exactly the same as an oil company relying on solar power to run its rigs, but it is definitely in the same ‘massive irony’ zip code. All of this makes the year when copyright finally expires over Mickey Mouse highly symbolic. The love triangle between Mickey, Disney, and the public domain is about to evolve, and perhaps even resolve, in real time.”


Ironically, back in 1990, it was the Mouse House (and singer/Congressman Sonny Bono) that helped repave modern copyright law, lobbying for extending the rights of their works in what has now been dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

“They were first set to go into the public domain after a 56-year term in 1984, but a term extension pushed that date to 2004,” Jenkins added. “They were then supposed to go into the public domain in 2004, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit another 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years. Now the wait is over.”