Disney’s Losing the Rights to Mickey Mouse in a Few Days, But He’s Not the Only Character Vanishing Into the Great Unknown of the Public Domain

mickey minnie and tigger
Credit: Walt Disney Animation/Canva

In only a few short days, Disney will no longer own the rights to Walt’s first version of Mickey Mouse, but as Mickey sets sail for the great unknown of the public domain, he won’t be traveling alone.

steamboat willie

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

In approximately two weeks, The Walt Disney Company will be forced to concede the rights to Walt Disney’s very first iteration of the mouse “who started it all:” Steamboat Willie. But as Steamboat Willie boards his steamer to venture beyond the horizon out into the public domain, he won’t be lonely as he’ll have another beloved Disney character to keep him company.

“This is it. This is Mickey Mouse,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and the director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain. “I kind of feel like the pipe on the steamboat, like expelling smoke. It’s so exciting.”

Jenkins writes an annual column every January 1, “Public Domain Day,” and says that the copyright extension law that allowed Steamboat Willie to stay under Disney’s ownership until January 1, 2024, is often referred to by an “oversimplified” nickname.

“It’s sometimes derisively referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” Jenkins said. “That’s oversimplified because it wasn’t just Disney that was pushing for term extension. It was a whole group of copyright holders whose works were set to go into the public domain soon, who benefited greatly from the 20 years of extra protection.”

mickey mouse in a courtroom with lawyers

Credit: Mike Tadasco via MidJourney AI

Walt Disney’s first iteration of Mickey Mouse–in the character of Steamboat Willie–is the only version of Mickey that will head off into the public domain on January 1.

“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,” a Disney spokesperson told the Associated Press. “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.”

steamboat willie

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

But Steamboat Willie won’t be navigating the great unknown of the public domain all by himself. Instead, he’ll have some familiar company.

Winnie the Pooh’s Pal Will Join Mickey

Another famous animal sidekick, Tigger, will set out for the public domain alongside Steamboat Willie, joining his good friend Winnie the Pooh, who has already taken the public domain plunge.

winnie the pooh and tigger by ernest shepard

Winnie the Pooh and Tigger as illustrated by Ernest Shepard in the 1920s/Credit: AA Milne/Ernest Shepard

Tigger, the bouncy “fun-fun-fun-fun-fun” tiger, first appeared in author AA Milne’s book, The House at Pooh Corner, when it was published in 1928, the same year that Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse.

tigger and pooh

Winnie the Pooh and Tigger as illustrated by Disney animators/Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Winnie the Pooh became part of the public domain in 2022, as he first appeared in AA Milne’s novel Winnie the Pooh when it was published in 1926. Sadly, the character was immediately picked up for some less-than-hoped-for uses, including the 2023 horror film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

There’s even talk of the creators of the horror flick working on a sequel that will include a murderous tiger named Tigger. Wonderful.

But Tigger won’t be Steamboat Willie’s only traveling companion, as the earliest iteration of Minnie Mouse will also enter the public domain on January 1, 2024. Though Mickey Mouse gets a larger part of the spotlight when it comes to information focused on the creation of Walt’s favorite mouse, Minnie Mouse was also created in 1928, just like Mickey Mouse.

mickey and minnie mouse in 1928

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

As such, she too will enter the public domain alongside the earliest version of Mickey Mouse and Tigger.

For diehard nostalgic fans of Walt Disney, the realization that Steamboat Willie will no longer be owned by Disney is a bit sad, as it symbolizes the end of an era, and it may only be true Walt fans who really understand how significant such a loss is for the company.

walt disney and mickey mouse

Credit: Walt Disney Archives

It does, however, gives fans a sense of comfort, knowing Steamboat Willie won’t go it alone. Rather, he’ll be in good company along the journey. Here’s hoping Walt’s little mouse doesn’t meet the same fate as Winnie the Pooh in the coming months and years.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!