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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

New Year, New Public Domain Entrants

Even Mickey Mouse isn't immune to the Public Domain.

Yesterday, January 1, 2024, Mickey Mouse entered the "public domain" essentially meaning that anyone can make copies of his first black and white cartoon Steamboat Willie. However, The Walt Disney Company may still prevent others from making new Mickey Mouse cartoons by using trademark principles which can protect a character that is the pre-eminent symbol of a company and has secondary meaning.

The expiration of copyrights for characters like Mickey Mouse raise tricky new legal questions, some of which are addressed in an informative article from National Public Radio:

Of course, not all versions of Mickey Mouse entered the Public Domain this year. Most are still protected by copyright. For details, check out this AP story from earlier this year:

And for background on the concept of copyright terms and their expiration, check out Duke Law School's Public Domain Day listing other works that entered the Public Domain on the same day:

What is the 'Public Domain' anyway and why does it matter?

The public domain refers to creative works that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent. These works are considered to belong to the public, which means anyone can use, modify, and distribute them without obtaining permission or paying royalties.

Works can enter the public domain through various means:

  1. Expired Copyright: Copyright protection has a limited duration. Once that time expires, the work becomes part of the public domain.

  2. Voluntary Dedication: Creators might choose to release their work directly into the public domain through tools like the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, forfeiting their copyright.

  3. Lack of Eligibility or Formalities: Some works don’t meet the criteria for copyright protection or were created before copyright laws existed.

The public domain matters to copyright owners for a few reasons:

Inspiration and Creativity: It can serve as a wellspring of inspiration for new creations. Artists, writers, and innovators can freely build upon public domain works without worrying about legal repercussions, fostering creativity and innovation.

Cultural Preservation: It ensures that significant cultural and historical works are accessible to everyone. It allows for the preservation and distribution of important texts, artworks, and scientific discoveries that might otherwise be restricted.

Education and Research: Public domain materials can be used in educational settings without the need for licensing fees. This facilitates learning, research, and the sharing of knowledge without financial or legal barriers.

Derivative Works: Copyright owners may benefit indirectly from the public domain when their works inspire new creations. These derivative works might renew interest in the original material, potentially increasing its value or relevance.

In essence, while the public domain might seem contrary to the interests of copyright holders, it actually serves as a balance in the intellectual property ecosystem. It fosters a rich cultural environment, encourages creativity, and contributes to the progression of knowledge and innovation.

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