When the clock hit midnight on New Year’s Eve, January 1st, 2024, the copyright protection on several creative works expired.1 One of these works is The Walt Disney’s famous and most iconic character, the original version of Mickey Mouse.2 Mickey Mouse, together with Minnie Mouse, were introduced to the world in Disney’s 1928 animated film ‘Steamboat Willie’3 and went on to become recognisable characters that would be associated with the Walt Disney brand for years. However, this has come to an end with the expiry of the copyright leading to the works entering the public domain.

So, what is the public domain and what does it mean when a creative work becomes part of the public domain? This piece will seek to answer these questions and provide more insight on the same.

What is the public domain?

Public domain refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws.4 Inventors/creators seek to protect their inventions/creations for a certain period through intellectual property rights (i.e. trademarks, copyright, patents etc.). These legal rights award an exclusive right to the inventor/creator or their assignee(s) to fully utilize and exploit their invention/creation for a given period5; allowing them to reap economic benefits from their works within that period. Another example of a creative work in the public domain is the “Happy Birthday” song, which entered the public domain in 2016.6

With this in mind, there are four common ways that works enter the public domain, these are:7

  1. When the intellectual property right protection period of a given work/invention lapses/expires (Works/inventions receive intellectual property protection for a set period. The timelines of protection vary from one country to another),
  2. When the intellectual property right owner of a given work/invention fails to follow the intellectual property right protection renewal rules to renew and extend the protection period,

  3. When the intellectual property right owner of a given work/invention deliberately places their work/invention in the public domain, also known as “dedication” and

  4. When intellectual property right law does not protect a respective type of work. For example, titles, names, short phrases, and slogans are not protected by copyright law, and generic terms are not protected by trademark.

What does it mean when a work/invention enters the public domain?

When a respective creative work/invention enters the public domain, they may be freely used without permission for commercial and non-commercial purposes by other parties, to create new works/inventions. For example, many Disney classic films are based on and are built upon public domain stories, such as Aladdin (1992) from a folk tale in One Thousand and One Nights (1706).8

For creators and inventors who intend to use works in the public domain, it is important that they carry out their due diligence and be certain that the version of work they intend to use is the version that is in the public domain to avoid infringement cases. With the example of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, the version of these characters that has become part of the public domain are the versions presented in Disney’s 1928 animated film ‘Steamboat Willie.’ These original versions of the beloved characters have undergone changes, for example, Disney has modernized the character Mickey Mouse over the years, giving him bigger ears, pupils, and different shorts.9 Disney still retains rights to all later iterations of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and to any associated registered intellectual property rights, such as the trademark in Mickey Mouse ears used in the Disney logo.10 Such measures help Disney extend its copyrights and cement the company’s association with the character.11

It is important to also highlight that due to the territorial nature of copyright protection (and generally intellectual property rights), Mickey and Minnie Mouse have only entered the public domain in the United States. This means that the protection and enforcement of the rights awarded to Walt Disney for Mickey and Minnie Mouse back in 1928 are subject to the laws and regulations of the jurisdictions within which they sort to protect the characters, in this case the United States. Different countries/jurisdictions offer different durations of protection. In Kenya for instance, copyright protection of creative and artistic works is governed by the Copyright Act. Section 23 of the Copyright Act provides for the duration of copyright in various types/forms of creative works, and in reading the Act, had Walt Disney also protected Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Kenya, the beloved characters would have entered the Kenyan public domain fifty years after the end of the year in which the author of the characters died.


The public domain promotes easier and more flexible access to knowledge and information. Accessibility goes a long way, as it benefits other creators and innovators, by providing them with required resources that would aid in further development. Key illustration of this is how the public domain could be used to advance technology and creativity through utilising the public domain to create datasets, that can assist with training generative AI models. For instance, a language model trained on the collection of public domain literature can be used to generate new stories or poetry.

It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun. We build upon works that came before us and much of human creativity, innovation, and progress is based on or inspired by the contributions and achievements of earlier generations. The current state of knowledge, art, technology, and culture is not isolated but rather a product of continuous development and evolution built upon the foundation laid by preceding creators, thinkers, and innovators. As such, the public domain can be considered to be a tool that seeks to support and promote the sharing of information for the sake of advancing creativity and innovation.

Image is from flickr.com

1Mary Whitfill Roeloffs, “Original Mickey And Minnie Mouse Will Enter Public Domain Next Week—Here’s What It Means For Creators”, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/maryroeloffs/2023/12/22/original-mickey-and-minnie-mouse-will-enter-public-domain-next-week-heres-what-it-means-for-creators/?sh=415797512161

2 “Disney loses famous Mickey Mouse copyright in 2024, along with many others”, CBS, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq_BM8_yyQM&t=5s

3 ibid

5 Saha CN, Bhattacharya S. Intellectual property rights: An overview and implications in pharmaceutical industry. J Adv Pharm Technol Res. 2011 Apr;2(2):88-93. doi: 10.4103/2231-4040.82952. PMID: 22171299; PMCID: PMC3217699. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3217699/#:~:text=Intellectual%20property%20rights%20(IPR)%20refers,a%20given%20period%20of%20time.

6 “Happy Birthday” song officially recognized in public domain, CBS News, 2016,


9 “Mickey Mouse heads to the public domain, but what does that mean for Disney and other copyright holders?”, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, https://carey.jhu.edu/articles/mickey-public-domain-copyright-holders

10 ibid

11 “Mickey Mouse heads to the public domain, but what does that mean for Disney and other copyright holders?”, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, https://carey.jhu.edu/articles/mickey-public-domain-copyright-holders

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